Aquinas, Evolution, Providence, & Chance

In Thomas Aquinas’ work titled On Truth (De Veritate), Thomas deals with whether or not the world is ruled by God’s providence, or whether all natural things happen randomly. Thomas even precedes his comments by positing a potential objector who says that if God were providentially moving all nature, we ought to be able to observe nature and determine God’s purposes, but we cannot do such a thing. Thomas gives us a most interesting comment in his response:

Whatever does not have a determinate cause happens by accident. Consequently, if the position mentioned above were true, all the harmony and usefulness found in things would be the result of chance. This was actually what Empedocles held. He asserted that it was by accident that the parts of animals came together in this way through friendship—and this was his explanation of an animal and of a frequent occurrence! This explanation, of course, is absurd, for those things that happen by chance, happen only rarely; we know from experience, however, that harmony and usefulness are found in nature either at all times or at least for the most part. This cannot be the result of mere chance; it must be because an end is intended. What lacks intellect or knowledge, however, cannot tend directly toward an end. It can do this only if someone else’s knowledge has established an end for it, and directs it to that end. Consequently, since natural things have no knowledge, there must be some previously existing intelligence directing them to an end, like an archer who gives a definite motion to an arrow so that it will wing its way to a determined end. Now, the hit made by the arrow is said to be the work not of the arrow alone but also of the person who shot it. Similarly, philosophers call every work of nature the work of intelligence. (DV, Q5, A2)

So Thomas considers the idea that the effects of the natural world happen by accident, even to the point of considering that parts of animals could come together due to their contact with each other, and considers this explanation absurd. His reason is that things that happen by chance, at least the useful things, happen only rarely, yet everything we observe in nature happens regularly. Harmony and usefulness are found always or at least usually, and this does not align with things happening by chance. That nature moves toward an end is evidence that an end is intended, and anything that lacks knowledge and happens randomly is not directed toward an end. Since natural things have no knowledge, there must be an external intellige3nce directing them toward an end.

Modern atheist evolutionists tell us that nature is completely purposeless, yet works toward an end, namely survival. For the most part this end is assumed and never questioned, and we are told that all of nature is mindless and random, yet driven toward an end. Thomas Aquinas thought of this position 750 years ago and called it absurd.

As for why nature and creatures do not work perfectly nor are perfectly aligned toward their ends, Thomas thought of this also. Creatures are flawed, and have weakness of body and of intellect, and therefore do not reflect their Creator’s designed ends perfectly. (see Difficulty & Answer 11) So the flaws we find in nature are not the fault of the Creator, but of the sin which entered the world and marred the creation. Our inability to observe nature and determine God’s purposes are due to our feeble intelligence, not the lack of God’s providence.

Aquinas’ explanation of divine providence is much more plausible than what we are commonly told today, which is that mindless random accident creates order, and that nature does not work toward an end, except in the case of the end of survival, which we are told to assume rather than question why this is so.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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5 Responses to Aquinas, Evolution, Providence, & Chance

  1. rautakyy says:

    You directed me to this post by claiming there is empirical evidence about intelligent design, but I do not see any here. What empirical evidence were you referring to, or did I somehow get diverted to a wrong post?

    As for this interresting post: Luckily for us modern people science has moved on a bit since the days of Thomas of Aquinas. Here he fell for the logical fallacy of argument from ignorance, by thinking, that since he can not explain nature by natural, or any other means other than invoking the supernatural engineer, then that has to be it. He even inserted a rather nasty strawman as the opposition to make his own ideas seem intelligent in comparrison to some nonsense he himself made up. But I forgive him, because he yet did not have the information awailable to us now, about the perfectly natural processes of natural selection.

    The trouble whith poor old Thomas was that in his culture the supernatural was already totally presupposed and he simply tried to give ground to the allready existing presupposition and bias about the culturally held beliefs in supernatural. However, supernatural explanations are no explanations at all, because they do not explain anything. They merely make up a conforting concept to hide the fact that we sometimes do not know everything.

    You see, natural selection is not only about biological survival, rather it is the governing natural event. If specs of dust in a young solar system are drawn towards each other by gravity to form asteroids and small asteroids get smashed into dust by the big asteroids and in collitions the big asteroids get fused to each other, then the natural selection for survival leads to a formation of a planet. Yet, only a rather complex and evolved lifeform dependant of the environment provided by thus formed planet (quite a while later) would tell itself, that the previous random collisions of the asteroids and dust due gravity was directed purposefully working toward an end for that lifeform to appear and live on the planet. But those were not working toward a predesigned end. They were just a random course of events that given enough time caused the lifeform to appear. It is the hindsight, that makes them seem like working for towards an “end” to the selfimportant lifeform. Most things infact do happen by chance, but that does not mean that they do not influence each other and thus form patterns. Does it?

    An all-creator can not be excused of the non-perfect state of the nature by “sin”, because all-creator is unavoidably responsible even for the possibility of “sin” to emerge. Right?

    • humblesmith says:

      You seem to be denying that anything in the world works toward and end, which was the universal empirical evidence presented here. Such a denial is a quite bold claim. I’ll take your position and say nothing works toward an end, so neither can you or I in our conversation. Otherwise the point was missed entirely, and I’d refer you back to the answers already in the post. ( e.g., you missed the point so far that you’re denying the obvious and what the post already explains. Read it again. )

      As to the source of evil, I’ve written quite a bit on this. Search for evil in the search box.

      • rautakyy says:

        Oh, but you read far too much into my comment. I expect, you are not deliberately trying to present a strawman, but just that I did not present myself clearly. I appologize, it may be because English is not my first language.

        I surely did not at any point deny, that anything in the world could work to achieve an end. Biological entities work all the time to achieve ends. You and I are biological are we not? But while a fish swims to find food, shelter and a mate and to avoid predators i.e. to achieve the ends to survive and reproduce, a river does not run to reach the sea. It just so happens, that water flows according to gravity and obstacles. Yes?

        This is not an all, or nothing question and therefore the logic of Thomas Aquinas fails. But now I see what you thought was the “empirical” evidence. Testing something against nothing really is no “empirical” evidence of anything. Thomas tested his cultural tradition about an all-creator against a rather stupid option, that parts of animals could come together by accident. Who in the modern world still would claim that is the case?

        The claim ol’Thomas was testing his hypothesis was nonsense then and it still is, but a nonsensical claim does not mean, that another alternative and contradictive nonsensical claim is any more true. This is like claiming that pixies can not be the reason why my sock is missing, because nobody can present evidence for pixies, hence leprechaurns must have taken it. No, the one claiming for the leprechaurns must still be able to present evidence for the leprechaurns and their connection to the missing sock.

        • humblesmith says:

          Every evolutionist believes the parts of an animal come together by accident. So if you think such a claim is stupid, on that you and I both agree. Further, you have not dealt with the main claims of the post, that naturalists claim the universe is purposeless, but works toward an end, namely survival.

          I honestly have trouble with a conversation here that does not seem to take the points of the post seriously, accuses the argument of logical flaws, then misses the points so dramatically. I cannot have a discussion when you throw around claims of illogic, but don’t really read the text or appear to understand what it’s saying. Your non-sequitur and widespread accusation of unexplained “nonsense” is significant enough that the conversation is not educational to the reader, so we’ll stop here.

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