Creation, Evolution and Meaning (Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology)

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It is through this process of natural selection that evolutionary biology explains the way in which we can account for the diversity of species in the world Although there are debates among evolutionary theorists about the randomness and contingency at the basis of evolution, many biologists argue that at the very least biology itself does not reveal any fundamental order, purpose, or meaning in nature. For some the randomness of evolutionary change is conclusive evidence that there is no purpose whatsoever in nature.

Richard Dawkins once remarked that "although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe. Despite some oversimplifications in this brief summary, it ought to be clear that the contemporary natural sciences, and in particular biology, present challenges to traditional theological and philosophical notions of nature, human nature, and God.

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As we shall see, those scientists like Dawkins and Dennett fail to distinguish between the order of biological explanation and the order of philosophical explanation. They do not recognize that creation is first of all a category of metaphysical reflection and that, furthermore, the materialism which they embrace is a position in natural philosophy not required by the evidence of biology itself. Similarly, many of the critics of the general conclusions of evolutionary biology, as we shall see, also confuse the order of biological explanation and the order of philosophical explanation. Defenders of "special creation" and of "irreducible complexities" in nature think that divine agency will show up in such gaps of nature.

But "gaps" of nature are the provenance of the specialized empirical sciences. Divine agency, rather, ought to be seen in the fundamental teleology of all natural things, in the need for a First Mover, and in the complete dependence of all things on God as the source of their existence.

It is natural philosophy, a more general science of nature than the specialized empirical sciences which examines the first two topics, and it is metaphysics which proves that all that is comes from God as cause. I think that we can find important parallels between the reactions to Aristotelian science in mediaeval Islam, Judaism, and Christianity and the reactions to Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian theories of evolution in the modern and contemporary world.

By re-visiting the mediaeval discussion of creation and the natural sciences, especially as found in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, we may be able to resolve a good deal of confusion concerning the relationship between creation and evolution. Obviously, the contemporary natural sciences are in crucial ways quite different from their Aristotelian predecessors. Aquinas and others in the Middle Ages would have found strange indeed Darwinian arguments of common descent by natural selection.

Evolution and Christian Theology

Nevertheless, I think that the understanding of creation forged by Aquinas and the principles he advanced for distinguishing between creation and the natural sciences remain true. To understand how the thought of Aquinas is important for contemporary discourse on creation and evolution we need to return, however briefly, to the intellectual world of the Latin Middle Ages. Throughout the thirteenth century, brilliant scholars such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the implications for Christian theology of the most advanced science of their day, namely, the works of Aristotle and his Muslim commentators, which had recently been translated into Latin.

Following in the tradition of Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides, Aquinas developed an analysis of creation that remains, I think, one of the enduring accomplishments of Western culture. In emphasizing the contribution of Aquinas, I do not want, however, to deny the sophisticated analyses of his Muslim and Jewish predecessors, analyses which Aquinas often cited. Thomas Aquinas' Understanding of Creation. It seemed to many of Aquinas' contemporaries that there was a fundamental incompatibility between the claim of ancient science that something cannot come from nothing and the affirmation of Christian faith that God produced everything from nothing.

Furthermore, for the Greeks, since something must always come from something, there must always be something; the universe must be eternal. The scientific works of Aristotle and several of his mediaeval commentators provided an arsenal of arguments which appear, at least, to be contrary to the truths of Christianity. In particular, how is one to reconcile the claim, found throughout Aristotle, that the world is eternal with the Christian affirmation of creation, a creation understood as meaning that the world is temporally finite, that is, has a temporal beginning of its existence?

In the Fourth Lateran Council had solemnly proclaimed that God created all that is from nothing [ de nihil condidit ] and that this creation occurred ab initio temporis. As chancellor of the University of Paris, the bishop was well aware of the debates about creation and the eternity of the world which raged through the thirteenth century.

If faith affirms that the world has a temporal beginning, can reason demonstrate this must be true? What can reason demonstrate about the fact of creation itself, as distinct from the question of a temporal beginning?

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Indeed, can one speak of creation as distinct from a temporally finite universe? These are some of the questions which thirteenth century Christian thinkers confronted as they wrestled with the heritage of Greek science. These questions are distant adumbrations of discourse in our own day about the meaning of creation in the context of the insights of evolutionary biology.

A master principle which informs Aquinas' analysis of creation is that the truths of science cannot contradict the truths of faith. God is the author of all truth and whatever reason discovers to be true about reality ought not to be challenged by an appeal to sacred texts. On the specific questions of creation out of nothing and the eternity of the world, the key to Aquinas' analysis is the distinction he draws between creation and change.

The natural sciences, whether Aristotelian or those of our own day, have as their subject the world of changing things: from subatomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a change there must be something that changes. The ancient Greeks are right: from nothing, nothing comes; that is, if the verb "to come" means to change. All change requires an underlying material reality. Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. To cause completely something to exist is not to produce a change in something, is not to work on or with some existing material.

If, in producing something new, an agent were to use something already existing, the agent would not be the complete cause of the new thing. But such complete causing is precisely what creation is. To build a house or paint a picture involves working with existing materials and either action is radically different from creation. To create is to cause existence, and all things are totally dependent upon a Creator for the very fact that they are. The Creator does not take nothing and make something out of nothing.

Rather, any thing left entirely to itself, wholly separated from the cause of its existence, would be absolutely nothing. Creation is not some distant event; it is the complete causing of the existence of everything that is. Creation, thus, as Aquinas shows, is a subject for metaphysics and theology; it is not a subject for the natural sciences.

Although Scripture reveals that God is Creator, for Aquinas, the fundamental understanding of creation is accessible to reason alone, in the discipline of metaphysics; it does not necessarily require faith. Aquinas thought that by starting from the recognition of the distinction between what things are, their essences, and that they are, their existence, one could reason conclusively to an absolutely first cause which causes the existence of everything that is.

The philosophical sense discloses the metaphysical dependence of everything on God as cause. The theological sense of creation, although much richer, nevertheless incorporates all that philosophy teaches and adds as well that the universe is temporally finite. Aquinas saw no contradiction in the notion of an eternal created universe. He thought that it was a matter of biblical revelation that the world is not eternal. He also thought that reason alone could not conclude whether the world had a temporal beginning.

But even if the universe were not to have had a temporal beginning, it still would depend upon God for its very being, its existence. The root sense of creation does not concern temporal origination; rather it affirms metaphysical dependence.

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Theories in the natural sciences account for change. Whether the changes described are cosmological or biological, unending or finite, they remain processes. Creation accounts for the existence of things, not for changes in things. An evolving universe, just like Aristotle's eternal universe, is still a created universe.


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No explanation of evolutionary change, no matter how radically random or contingent it claims to be, challenges the metaphysical account of creation, that is, of the dependence of the existence of all things upon God as cause. When some thinkers deny creation on the basis of theories of evolution, or reject evolution in defense of creation, they misunderstand creation or evolution, or both.


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Divine Agency and the Autonomy of Nature. For some in the Middle Ages any appeal to the autonomy of nature, that is, any appeal to the discovery of real causes in the natural order, seemed to challenge divine omnipotence. One reaction, made famous by some Muslim thinkers, known as the kalam theologians, was to protect God's power and sovereignty by denying that there are real causes in nature.

Thus, they would say that when fire is burning a piece of paper it is really God who is the true agent of the burning; the fire is but an instrument. Accordingly, events that occur in the natural world are only occasions in which God acts. There is another dimension to this argument about God's power and the existence of causes in nature.

Averroes, for example, rejected the doctrine of creation out of nothing, because he thought that to affirm the kind of divine omnipotence which produces things out of nothing is to deny a regularity and predictability to the natural world. Thus, for Averroes, to defend the intelligibility of nature one must deny the doctrine of creation out of nothing. This debate between kalam theologians and Averroes 17 anticipates, as we shall see, discussions in our own day about evolutionary biology and divine action in the world.

Contrary to the positions both of the kalam theologians and of their opponent, Averroes, Aquinas argues that a doctrine of creation out of nothing, which affirms the radical dependence of all being upon God as its cause, is fully compatible with the discovery of causes in nature. God's omnipotence does not challenge the possibility of real causality for creatures, including that particular causality, free will, which is characteristic of human beings.

Aquinas would reject any notion of divine withdrawal from the world so as to leave room, so to speak, for the actions of creatures. Aquinas does not think that God "allows" or "permits" creatures to behave the way they do. Creatures are what they are including those which are free , precisely because God is present to them as cause.

Creation, Evolution and Meaning - Professor Robin Attfield - Google книги

Were God to withdraw, all that exists would cease to be. Creaturely freedom and the integrity of nature, in general, are guaranteed by God's creative causality. On the other hand, the occasionalism of kalam theologians e. If we follow Aquinas' lead, we can see that there is no need to choose between a robust view of creation as the constant exercise of divine omnipotence and the explanatory domain of evolutionary biology.


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Aquinas shows us how to distinguish between the being or existence of creatures and the operations they perform. God causes creatures to exist in such a way that they are the real causes of their own operations. For Aquinas, God is at work in every operation of nature, but the autonomy of nature is not an indication of some reduction in God's power or activity; rather, it is an indication of His goodness.

Creation, Evolution and Meaning

It is important to recognize that divine causality and creaturely causality function at fundamentally different levels. In the Summa contra Gentiles , Aquinas remarks that "the same effect is not attributed to a natural cause and to divine power in such a way that it is partly done by God, and partly by the natural agent; rather, it is wholly done by both, according to a different way, just as the same effect is wholly attributed to the instrument and also wholly to the principal agent.

God, as Creator, transcends 22 the order of created causes in such a way that He is their enabling origin.

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