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Aquinas's Fifth way and Evolution
Submitted by Gaven on Mon, 2008-08-11 11:12
When teaching this topic to some of my tutorial students, it occurred to me that for the most part scholars have misunderstood the fifth way of St Thomas Aquinas (cf. Summa Theologiae, Ia, qu, II, art. III, text available in latin at www.corpusthomisticum.org and in english at www.newadvent.com). The fifth way runs as follows. Things that lack intelligence act for an end, for they act always in the same way to obtain the best result (e.g. certain plants photosynthesise in order to produce food). Things lacking in intelligence cannot intelligently act towards their own end, but must be ordained to that end by something intelligent. Now, the universe taken as a whole is unintelligent and acts towards an end, i.e. the good of its inhabitants. Thus, the universe itself must have something that ordains it towards its end, which is God.
Now, irrespective of whether Aquinas has succeeded in proving the existence of God at this point (I think that this argument can only work when read in conjunction with the previous four ways), there is an interesting point to bear in mind here. Thomas is not arguing that God is a designer. At no point in the argument has God been described in terms of a designer. Rather, he is taken to be that which ordains the end of the universe; it is not exactly clear that the ordainer is a designer. Now, modern readings of Aquinas's fifth way render it a design argument (notably Brian Davies). But this cannot be the case, since Thomas is concerned with the finality of an unintelligent universe and not the intricate design thereof.
Given that Thomas is not advancing a design argument in the fifth way, what conclusions can be derived therefrom? If God has been shown to exist, then it is not clear that He has meticuously designed each and every aspect of creation (doubtless Aquinas would hold that He knows everything in creation, cf. De veritate, but this is not the same as designing creation). If God has not designed everything, but merely ordains the universe to its end, then there is room for natural causality within the universe. Thus, an argument such as Aquinas's fifth way can fit nicely with Darwinian evolution, since Aquinas is not advancing any thesis with regard to the natural causality of the universe, but to the finality of the universe, which is a metaphysical account of creation, not a physical one.
Furthermore, in his discussion of creation later in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas, drawing on the theological tradition, tells us that the creation narrative can be read in two ways. In one way, it can be taken literally, that God created the world in six successive days in the way narrated in Genesis. On the other hand, it can be read metaphysically, that creation is a single act whereby God creates from his infinite being all finite beings, and the created effect itself is stratisfied into 6 different levels, beginning at the very base level with formless matter. Thus, each 'day' of creation is nothing more than a description of the different levels of reality. Aquinas attributes this latter position to St Augustine. Moreover, the Augustinian position seems to be in accord with Aquinas's mature metaphysical thought on the nature of creation (cf. Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei).
Consequently, intelligent design is not necessarily the default position of the Christian attempting to appropriate darwinian thought to his or her theology. There is a tradition that goes right back to Augustine that holds that creation is a single act and that the created effect is stratified into different levels. Within these levels, natural causality is free to excercise itself in whatever way possible. Thus, two of the most influential philosopher-theologians within the Christian tradition advocate a metaphysics which is itself quite compatible with Darwinian thought. The desire of the intelligent design theorists seems to be geared towards a literal reading of Genesis, but such a reading was not the deafult position of historical christianity, and only represented one particular interpretation of the Genesis account.
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