Aquinas's Fifth way and Evolution

Gaven's picture
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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There is no need for God

Leonid's picture

For the argument in favor of final causation in the organisms without need of devine intervention I recommend the book " Life itself" by Robert Rosin and "The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts" by Harry Binswanger. The Universe as a whole is not living entity and doesn't act toward any goals, only organisms do, since only they,who face the alternative to live or to die. Unanimated matter has no goals and acts according to the Law of Identity.

Sounds good to me

Ptgymatic's picture

Gavin was mostly looking for a way to defend belief in God. He wasn't working from facts up.

= Mindy

All of the debate of the

tyler.sharshel's picture

All of the debate of the means to an end or an end in itself aside, doesn't evolution already cover the idea of why unintelligent things survive? If a plant couldn't autonomously run it's cycle of photosynthesis it would die out and no longer exist. We can even digress from that and say an unintelligent cell (possibly the one that would eventually evolve into that plant) that didn't adapt to its environment would die off, as opposed to another cell that does adapt and lives on. Forgive me if I miss a larger point in my ignorance

Well, I offer commentary on

Gaven's picture

Well, I offer commentary on your analysis of means and ends in your discussion of human actions, I discuss means and ends as found in the inanimate world, finally I offer some explanation of God as being something more than a final cause. The only topic I did not address was your first one concerning my contentment that God created the world but did not design it, but that is the point of the whole discussion. Moreover, I am not attempting to minimise the notion of God, I am merely pointing out that within Thomas's philosophy of God, there is room for agreement with contemporary Darwinian thought; I am certainly not saying that this is the only aspect of God that can be philosophically demonstrated and investigated.

This is going nowhere fast

Ptgymatic's picture

Sorry, Gavin, but your last post was both tangential and regressive. I don't see you responding to the arguments I'm giving you.

--Mindy

With regard to human

Gaven's picture

With regard to human actions, the action itself is not termed an end, but only acidentally so. Thus, when walking, the end is the intended destination, but there can be intermediate ends, for instance, the immediate end of lifting your right foot is to put it forward, the immediate end of lifting your left foot is to put it forward, and so on. Even with these intermediate ends, they can be broken down further. But one can discern when the act of walking comes to an end, and this end is an arbitrarily defined point by the intelligent individual. Concerning your dichotomy of walking for the sake of walking or walking to get somewhere, both are ends, but insofar as the former is and end, it is not to be thereby inferred that the action is itself an end. The fact that the end coincides with the act of walking is only accidental, for it is not necessary that all ends coincide with the action that leads to them, as in the case of walking in order to get somewhere. Now with regard to Aquinas's fifth way, the end of the universe is an arbitrarily selected end by God, it is not necessary that the actions leading to that end are identified with the end itself, because, as outlined above, the end and the actions do not necessarily coincide.

With regard to the inanimate world, we can discern that things are in motion and that they come to rest, only to go into motion again. The rest is the end of the process of motion, and it is in this manner that we can discern ends and the means that lead towards them. But this is immaterial to the fifth way, because there Thomas is not concerned with physical means/ends, but with metaphysical means/ends, in which case the physical examples are only used to illuminate the metaphysical.

With regard to who creates the means, you are partially correct. You have indeed created some of the things within the universe, and thus indeed you share in God's power in that respect. Aquinas, following from Augustine, holds that all existing things derive their being from God, but being and essence are distinct in creatures, thus the being can remain the same but the essence can change. God can create at the point of creation essence/existence composites, and then leave creation to its own devices. Thus, species can interact with other species, hybrids can form, new species can develop. But for as long as they have being, they are being created by God. Perhaps this leads to a rather deist view of God, one hardly in line with the classical theism of Aquinas. It was with this objection in mind that I noted in my original post that the fifth way only works when read in conjunction with the prior four ways, which flesh out the notion of God and bring Him into a more intimate relationship with creation. Thus, the kind of God that is depicted in the fifth way must be read in conjunction with the God already depicted in the first four ways, i.e. prime mover, efficient cause, necessary being, and most perfect in the scale of being.

Perhaps you didn't mean...

Ptgymatic's picture

...to focus on the means to the end, in your photosynthesis example, but that is what the example actually does.

I'm puzzled at your contentment with the idea that God created the world, but didn't design it. Of course, if it is just a patch to avoid "the argument from design" I get it, but would warn you about theorizing from a polemical position. Otherwise, I think you might be thinking of the terms "means" and "end" as non-contextual.

Human actions can be termed "means" or "end." If we don't want to do a behavior for its own sake, we are doing it for the sake of something it results in. But the actions themselves, not our motives for doing them, aren't different in any way. For example, I may walk in order to be walking, or I may walk in order to get somewhere. And both walks may cover the same ground, at the same rate, etc.

In the inanimate world, the distinction doesn't hold up. Changes happen. Forces force. There is no means-end, because there isn't any purpose. Crystals don't grow in order to be beautiful. Gravity doesn't pull because it desires to be close. Suns don't burn because they like it hot! While we can project or predict what the end state of the interaction of certain objects and forces will be, and then we might say the intermediate stages are "means" to that end, the whole enterprise is a cognitive ploy to simplify a large number of intermediate steps.

Also, if God doesn't plan means, who does? How can you create the universe without creating everything in the universe? I've created some of the things in the universe. That makes me on a par with God, if he only created, willed, or designed some of the universe? What kind of lesser God will you have extracted from controversy, even if you succeed?

"Photosynthesis is a smart

Gaven's picture

"Photosynthesis is a smart way for plants to get fed. Not being intelligent, their acting so intelligently must be arranged by an outside agent, namely God. That makes God the designer. If not God, who, or how? If not by God's design, why do plants so "intelligently" go about photosynthesizing?"

It is not their acting per se that is taken to be intelligent, but the acting towards the end, and this end is ordained by God, as the argument has it. Since God ordains the end, it is not at all necessary the He ordain the means. Plants don't intelligently go about photosynthesizing, the adverb here is being used to qualify the means towards the end, whereas it is the ordaining of the end that should be qualified. The end is not ordained unintelligently, but intelligently. Thus, unintelligent beings that act towards an end, act as if they are intelligent but are not actually so.

"Photosynthesis is just such an "intelligently acting towards," only it happens in a dumb plant."

The act of photosynthesis is not an intelligent act, but the end towards which it acts is intelligently ordained as the argument would have it.

"On a broader note, your distinction between means and ends is subject to the objection that what you call the "end" is arbitrary. It's the old "chicken and the egg" problem. Is the chicken the means to the egg, or the egg the means to have a chicken? Is the plant's "end" its own life, or is its end procreation? Is procreation its own end or is its end growth? Is growth its own end, or it its end maturity? Is the plant's "end" its own life, or is its end procreation? "

Well, those are all very valid logical points, but they do not affect Thomas's position in the fifth way. There, Thomas is not concerned with individual ends and means, unless they are used to illuminate the distinction between end and means. Rather, Thomas is concerned with the end of the universe, which is the good of its inhabitants, and it is not at all clear that when God wills the universe's end that he wills the particular means.

"With no way to say which stage is the "end," you can't say which stage God is willing, nor that the stage God is willing is not a "means.""

But that is to presuppose that God creates only through willing. Suffice to say Aquinas does not acept that God creates only though willing, but through intelligence and will. Thus, God can know the means that will entail if He wills some end, in which case if He wills the end of the universe, He knows the means that will entail, but it is not clear that He wills them. Thomas is quite clear that God does not bring into existence everything that He knows (cf. Louis Bertrand Geiger, Les idees divines dans l'oeurve de S. Thomas', in Thomas Aqiunas 1274 - 1974: Commemorative Studies.

Your statement was...

Ptgymatic's picture

"Things lacking intelligence cannot intelligently act towards their own end." (or almost those words.) The example being photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is a smart way for plants to get fed. Not being intelligent, their acting so intelligently must be arranged by an outside agent, namely God. That makes God the designer. If not God, who, or how? If not by God's design, why do plants so "intelligently" go about photosynthesizing?

I do see where you would like to go with your distinction, but your own example works against you. "Things lacking intelligence cannot intelligently act towards their own end." Photosynthesis is just such an "intelligently acting towards," only it happens in a dumb plant. You are giving God the role of supplying the intelligence that gets plants to conduct photosynthesis (the means) in order to survive (the end.) Only, this example is quoted as illuminating how God "wills" "ends" or final causes, but doesn't "will" "means!"

On a broader note, your distinction between means and ends is subject to the objection that what you call the "end" is arbitrary. It's the old "chicken and the egg" problem. Is the chicken the means to the egg, or the egg the means to have a chicken? Is the plant's "end" its own life, or is its end procreation? Is procreation its own end or is its end growth? Is growth its own end, or it its end maturity? Is the plant's "end" its own life, or is its end procreation?

With no way to say which stage is the "end," you can't say which stage God is willing, nor that the stage God is willing is not a "means." 

Is there a precedent for your separation of a God-willed end from the means that attend it? If an end is truly willed by God, does it require a means? If it does, and God wills an end, but leaves the means open, what if the mechanism that supplies means fails? Would God's will be thwarted? This is truly angels on pin-heads, but if you are serious about it, you'll want your arguments straight.

--Mindy

With regard to the

Gaven's picture

With regard to the photosynthesis example. The end is the production of food, acting towards that end is the activity of photosynthesis - photosynthesising. As the fifth way argues, God ordains the end, in this instance that the plant seek food, but God's ordaining the end puts Him in the order of final causality, the means towards that end are not willed. Thus, if the fifth way is successful and God has been demonstrated as the final cause, then God's creative act is in the order of final causality. If his creative act is in the order of final causality, then he wills the end but not the means, and if he wills the end but not the means, he is an ordainer not a designer.

If you accept that there is a distinction between willing and end and willing the means towards that end, then the characteristic nature of an agent who wills an end is somwhat different from the characteristic nature of an agent who wills the means. 

I submit then that the distinction between ordainer and designer is a valid one, in which case Thomas's fifth way cannot be labelled a design argument.

"Act towards their own end"

Ptgymatic's picture

Your distinction between "ordain" and "design" won't hold up. Unintelligent things, you say, can't "act towards their own end." Photosynthesis to obtain food in plants is your example. Now, photosynthesis is the means to an end, not the end itself. So if it takes God to get plants to conduct photosynthesis, then God is determining how plants act to produce food, not that plants shall live on. And that is design. It is the means to the "end."

Yet you argue that God merely ordains the end, and shouldn't be called a designer! (Actually you aren't consistent, but that's your main thrust.)

You can't choose what subject you are assigned to tutor, I guess, but you can make sure you don't confuse your students with false arguments!

--Mindy

 

 

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