God and Nature


I. The Existence and Nature of God (Natural Theology)

A. The Big Picture
B. Stage One: Proof of a First Efficient Cause
C. Stage Two: Via Remotionis
D. Stage Three: Via Affirmationis


II. The Emanation of Creatures from God: Creation and Conservation

A. The Nature of Efficient Causality
B. The Nature of Creation ex nihilo
C. God as Pure Actuality and Unparticipated Esse
D. Creation vs. neo-Platonist Emanation


III. The Emanation of Creatures from God: General Concurrence

A. The Problem of Secondary (or Creaturely) Causality
B. Three Positions
C. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Teleology in Nature

IA. The Big Picture

 In Summa Contra Gentiles 1 St. Thomas divides his natural theology into three distinct stages:
 

  • Stage One: Proof of a First Efficient Cause
  •  
    • Critique of a priori arguments for God's existence (chaps. 10-11)

    • The possibility of natural theology (chap. 12)
    •  
    • Proof a First Efficient Cause -- and of other god-like beings as well (chap. 13)

     
  • Stage Two: Via Remotionis
  •  
    • Explanation of the via remotionis (chap. 14)

    • Derivation of the negative divine attributes (chaps. 15-27)
    •  
    • Conclusion: The First Efficient Cause is a perfect being (chap. 28)

     
  • Stage Three: Via Affirmationis
  •  
    • Explanation of the via affirmationis (chaps. 29-36)

    • Derivation of the positive divine attributes (chaps. 37-102)



IB. Stage One: Proof of a First Efficient Cause

  • Genus of Proof:
  •  
    • a posteriori (from the effects to the cause of those effects) and
    •  
    • not a priori (from the concept of God to His existence, ala St. Anselm, or from the claim that all our intellective cognition begins with a "preconceptual" grasp of infinite being, ala Karl Rahner and other so-called Transcendental Thomists.  It is this latter position which, as far as I can make sense of the term, is branded as ontotheology by certain modern and contemporary opponents of natural theology).

     
  • Definition of a First Efficient Cause (FEC)

  •  FEC = A being that acts (or causes or effects movement) and is not acted upon (or caused or moved) = God in the Gallup Poll sense.  That is, 'God' is here functioning as a general or common term, and not as a proper name, and its content is undetermined beyond the description under which the being in question is proved.)

    (Note:  First of all, the argument is temporally vertical rather than horizontal; that is, it is not an argument for the beginning of the world, but an argument for the necessity of an FEC for any change to take place in the present.  Second, we can do just as well, I believe, with the notion of a Necessary Being or Uncaused Cause.  So it is not the case that the whole edifice depends on just one argument for the existence of a god-like being.)

      Question: Your proof of an FEC presupposes that the world is eternal. But what if the world is not eternal?

      Answer: Then it is absolutely obvious that there is an FEC!
       
       

IC. Stage Two: Via Remotionis
  • Explanation of the Via Remotionis:

    • We have, pace St. Anselm, no positive quidditative concept of God--the sort of 'natural kind' concept that allows us to begin scientific inquiry with a taxonomy of substances that we have a direct grasp of.
    •  
    •  So we cannot know a priori that there is a perfect being.

    • However, given that there is an FEC, we can argue "negatively" that an FEC must lack various sorts of imperfection or finitude characteristic of things we do have positive quidditative concepts of. This series of arguments constitutes the via remotionis.
    •  
    • In this way -- and in this way alone -- we can come to know, a posteriori, that there is a perfect being (that than which no greater being can be conceived).

  • Negative attributes derived by the via remotionis, given the definition of an FEC:
  •  
    • An FEC has no passive potentiality (or passive power), i.e., cannot be caused or acted upon in any way (Chap. 16 & 19)
    •  
    • An FEC has no beginning and no end, i.e., is eternal (Chap. 15)
    •  
    • An FEC is not intrinsically measured by time (Chap. 15)
    •  
    • An FEC is imperfectible and incorruptible (Chap. 16)
    •  
    • An FEC is not the matter of which the physical universe is composed (Chap. 17)
    •  
    • An FEC is simple and lacks composition, i.e., has no composition of any of the types of composition--each instantiating the basic act/potency duality--that are characteristic of finite beings in Aristotelian metaphysics, to wit: (Chap. 18)
    •  
      • composition of integral (material or bodily) parts (Chap. 20)
      •  
      • composition of essential parts (form and matter,) (Chap. 20) -- a first cause lacks even the sort of matter had by the celestial bodies, which is on an Aristotelian view subject only to change of place
      •  
      • composition of substance and accident (since accidents perfect substances) (Chap. 23)
      •  
      • composition of genus and difference (since the difference perfects the genus) (Chap. 24 & 25)
      •  
      • composition of esse and nature (essence) (since an FEC cannot receive esse (being) from another) (Chap. 21 & 22)

    • An FEC is not the form or structure of the universe, either as a whole or with respect to any particular bodily thing (Chap. 26 & 27)

    Conclusion: An FEC is wholly lacking in imperfection and so is an utterly transcendent perfect being (= God in Anselm's sense) (Chap. 28)
     

ID. Stage Three: Via Affirmationis
  • The similarity of creatures to God
  •  
    • Univocal vs. Equivocal Causality: God is an equivocal cause of creatures, since creatures do not have their attributes in the way that God 'has' (better: is) his attributes. For God's attributes are His imperfectible substance or nature--and not accidents that perfect a perfectible substance.  (In general, a univocal cause is one that communicates its own nature to the effect, as in generation, whereas an equivocal cause is one whose effect is different in nature from the cause.)
    •  
    • Still, creatures are 'traces' or 'representations'--albeit imperfect traces or representations--of the divine being, analogous to the way in which artifacts instantiate the ideas or blueprints of the artisans who make them. For the divine ideas are themselves indicative of modes in which God's being can be represented or imaged by finite creatures.  (Intellectual substances, such as angels and human beings, are said to be 'images' of God rather than mere 'traces'.  But we can't go into that distinction here.)
    •  
    • So we can come to a limited knowledge of those positive attributes of God that are reflected in His creation, but we must always be mindful of His transcendence as established by the via remotionis.

     
  • Types of predication of positive attributions to God:
  •  
    • Literal predications:
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      • Names that signify pure perfections (e.g., 'wise', 'intelligent', 'good', 'living', etc.)
      •  
      • Names that signify in the mode of supereminence (e.g., 'First Efficient Cause', 'Perfect Being', etc.)

    • (Merely) metaphorical predications:
    •  
      • Names that signify perfections but express a mode that can belong only to creatures (e.g., 'lion', 'rock', 'fortress', 'paper towel', as in  "God is a paper towel that wipes away our sins").  It is precisely the via remotionis that gives us the division of biblical predicates about God into literal and metaphorical.

     
  • Types of literal predication:
    •  
    • Univocal predication: Predication of a form or concept that is the same in species in both subjects (e.g., 'Simba is a lion' and 'Ponto is a lion')

    • Equivocal (by chance) predication: Predication of two wholly disparate forms or concepts that just happen to be associated with the same linguistic term (e.g., 'This is a bat' said of the animal and 'This is a bat', said of the instrument for hitting a pitched ball).
    •  
    • Analogical predication: Predication of two forms which, though different, are ordered to one another in some non-accidental way (e.g., 'This is intelligent' said of you as a student and of your term paper; 'This is healthy' as said of an animal and of food).  So we have two different concepts here, but concepts that are ordered in a certain way.
    • St. Thomas's thesis: Terms that are predicated literally of both God and creatures (viz., the pure perfections) are predicated of them analogically, always under the shadow of God's transcendence as established by the via remotionis.  This is why St. Thomas and others say strange things like 'God is Wisdom'.

      Dynamics of positive predication: God is wise ..... but not wise like Socrates (via remotionis) ..... God is super-wise or Wisdom Itself  --  the abstract term 'wisdom' reminds us of God's simplicity but doesn't capture his subsistence (unlike ordinary instances of wisdom, he's not an accident that exists in another), whereas the concrete term 'wise' reminds us of God's subsistence but doesn't capture his simplicity (unlike the wise beings of our experience, he is not composed of his substance and the accident of wisdom which perfects that substance).
       

  • Some positive attributions arrived at by means of the via affirmationis--based on principle that a perfect being has what it is more perfect to have than to lack:
  •  
    • goodness
    • uniqueness
    • intelligence
    • power
    • freedom
    • love
    • mercy
    • justice
    • providence
    • blessedness ........This is precisely what God offers us a participation in = human beatitude

IIA. The Nature of Efficient Causality (a case in which the light of faith leads to a conclusion that could have been discovered by natural reason, but probably would not have been discovered without revelation)

  • Aristotle:
  • Agent A is an efficient cause of effect E = The form that constitutes E is given by A via A's acting on the subject of E

    Note: The implication is that every instance of efficient causality involves both

    • an action on a patient that constitutes a change, and
    •  
    • the communication of a form or perfection

     
  • St. Thomas:
  • Agent A is an efficient cause of effect E = A, by acting, gives esse to E (where esse includes, but is not limited to, form)

    Note: The implication is merely that every instance of efficient causality involves

    • the communication of esse, but not necessarily action on a patient
    •  
    • an action, but not necessarily a change in the strict sense

So St. Thomas re-defines efficient causality in order to open up conceptual space for the possibility of creation ex nihilo -- which, if it is possible, is surely a kind of efficient causality.


IIB. The Nature of Creation ex nihilo (See Summa Contra Gentiles 2, chap. 17-19)
 

  • Similarities to ordinary efficient causality:
  •  
    • Creation involves action, i.e., the communication of an effect by an agent
    •  
    • Creation involves the communication of esse


  • Differences from ordinary efficient causality:
  •  
    • Creation involves no patient and so is not a change--either a qualified (accidental) change or an unqualified (substantial) change
    •  
    • Creation is both (i) instantaneous and (ii) such that no causal processes lead up to it.

    • Creation involves the giving of esse-as-such (i.e., esse "from the bottom up" or, better, "from the top down") and not just such-esse (form).

     
  • The heart of the doctrine of creation: 
Necessarily, for any entity x distinct from God, God gives x esse-as-such at every moment x exists; that is, God gives esse to x and to all its accidents and parts and components (including primary matter if applicable) at every moment at which x exists.
     
  • Creation and Conservation:

    • Creation de novo = giving esse-as-such to an entity none of whose constituents has previously existed
    •  
    • Divine conservation = giving esse-as-such to an entity that already exists (i.e., the prolongation of the creative act)
    •  
      Questions: What about the generation of one created substance by other created substances? What about accidental change? Stay tuned.


IIC. God as Pure Actuality and Unparticipated Esse

  • Initial question: Is there any being capable of creating ex nihilo?
  •  
    • St. Thomas's answer: Only if there is an agent whose proper effect is "esse-as-such." That is, a creative agent
       
      • must be able to give esse from the bottom up (or better:  from the top down) to at least some entity and hence must be Pure Actuality (intensive aspect), and
      •  
      • must be able to give esse to any possible finite being and hence must be Unparticipated Esse (extensive aspect)
      •  
    • Pure Actuality (an Aristotelian limiting notion): Beings that have passive potency are able to communicate only perfections which, like their own perfections, modify a presupposed subject. So beings of this sort can communicate only "such-esse," i.e., forms of various kinds. Only a being whose own esse is not the actualization of some passive potentiality -- and whose substance is thus not a subject perfected by attributes -- is capable of giving esse from the bottom up, i.e., without presupposing a subject or patient to act on. Such a being is Pure Actuality with no admixture of passive potentiality. (See Summa Contra Gentiles 2, chap. 16, #3)
    •  
    • Unparticipated Esse (a Platonistic limiting notion): Beings that have limited perfection have only a part of (or participation in) the totality of all perfections, and thus they are 'participated' beings and have 'participated' (or 'partitioned') esse (e.g., aardvark-esse or oak-tree-esse). Since a being cannot give perfections that it in no way contains, a participated being cannot give esse to every possible finite being. Only a being which is unlimited or unpartitioned or unparticipated esse -- and in which there is thus no distinction between esse and delimiting nature (i.e. essence) -- can give every possible sort of esse. (See Summa Contra Gentiles 2, chap. 15, #5 and #7)

  • Thesis:

    •  God = Pure Actuality = Unparticipated Esse = has no distinction between esse and essentia (or nature).  All of these necessarily go together.
       
    • Creature = A limited actuality involving potentiality = esse limited to a particular nature = has composition of esse and essentia. This holds for spiritual as well as material creatures.


IID. Creation vs. neo-Platonist Emanation

  • Neo-Platonism:
  •  
    • God creates by a necessity of nature and not freely
    •  
    • God creates just one creature, viz., the first intelligence, which creates the second intelligence, which creates the third intelligence ......which creates the Giver of Forms to the sublunar world.
    • Conclusion: A creator need not be capable of giving esse-as-such to all possible creatures.

  • St. Thomas:
  •  
    • In giving esse-as-such, God acts freely and not by a necessity of nature
    •  
    • God's effects are 'limited' only by what is metaphysically possible (defined by the divine ideas), and every possible creature is such that God is able to bring it into existence directly (without any intermediaries) and ex nihilo.  (In fact, creation ex nihilo does not itself admit of intermediary efficient causes.)

    • God is an intelligent and perfectly provident creator
    • Question: Doesn't an all-good being necessarily diffuse goodness?  (St. Thomas:  This necessary diffusion occurs within the divine nature in the procession of the Son from the Father and the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son.)


IIIA. The Problem of Secondary (or Creaturely) Causality  (aka:  the roots of the (catastrophic, of course) 17th century rejection of Aristotelian natures).

The following two theses appear to be in tension with one another when we are talking about actions that, unlike creation and divine conservation, are actions on a subject or patient:

    (T1) God gives esse-as-such to every creature at every moment it exists

    (T2) Creatures themselves act as genuine (secondary) causes of other creatures (substances and accidents) and thus give them esse.


IIIB. Three Positions   

  • OCCASIONALISM :
  •  
    • (T1) is true and (T2) is false
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    • So God is the only active cause in nature.
    •  
    • Comments:
    •  
      • 'Cause' followed by 'effect' vs. effect emanating from cause; occasional causality (counterfactual dependence) vs. genuine efficient causality  (where do you think Hume got it from?)
      •  
      • Laws of nature = the norms God has chosen to impose on things from without
      •  
      • The aim of natural science is not to discover the inner natures of things -- or, equivalently, the real causes of things -- but rather to discover the norms that God has chosen to impose on his action in the world.
      •  
      • Problems with the causal origin of evil
      •  
      • For St. Thomas's response to occasionalism, see Summa Contra Gentiles 3, chap. 69
      •  
    • Protagonists: al-Ghazali, Gabriel Biel (sort of), Malebranche, Berkeley

    (Interested students may click here to read a really interesting (well, at least mildly interesting) paper on occasionalism.)
     

  • MERE CONSERVATIONISM:
    •  
    • (T2) is true and (T1) is false
    •  
    • In the ordinary course of nature, God gives esse-as-such to certain creatures only after they have been produced by other creatures.
    •  
    • Comments:
    •  
      • Stronger than deism, since it holds that God continuously conserves all created things and their active and passive powers. But it still denies that every effect in the world is directly God's effect.
      •  
      • Laws of nature = norms that are intrinsic to the natures of things 
      •  
      • The aim of natural science is to discover the inner natures of things or, equivalently, the real causes of things
      •  
    • Protagonists: Durandus de Saint-Pourçain, some moderns

    •  
  • CONCURRENTISM:
  •  
    • (T1) and (T2) are both true.
    •  
    • In the ordinary course of nature God's manner of giving esse-as-such to natural effects is to act with or through created agents as a concurring immediate (i.e., direct) cause of their own proper effects. Thus a natural action is an action of both God and secondary agents.
    •  
    • Comments:
    •  
      • Laws of nature = norms that are intrinsic to the natures of things
      •  
      • The aim of natural science is to discover the inner natures of things or, equivalently, the real causes of things
      •  
      • The miracle of the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) or (Ghazal's example) Abraham in the fire
      •  
      • Thomists [Dominicans] vs. Molinists and Suarezians [Jesuits] (famous 16th century dispute De Auxiliis)
      •  
    • Protagonists: St. Thomas (see Summa Contra Gentiles 3, chaps. 67 and 70) and virtually all the Scholastics

    •  
IIIC. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Teleology in Nature
  • Intrinsic Teleology: A function of the causal tendencies built into natural things insofar as they have natures (Aristotle)
  •  
  • Extrinsic Teleology: A function of God's role as Law-giver and provident Ruler of the physical universe (Plato)
  • St. Thomas's View:  By His eternal law God endows creatures with the causal tendencies and powers that define their natures, and by that same law He "guides the actions and movements of all nature". Thus there is no conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic teleology. Talk of law emphasizes God's role as Law-giver, whereas talk about intrinsic tendencies and propensities emphasizes the relative autonomy of creatures endowed by God with their own natures.