Thomas Aquinas vs. The Intelligent Designers
What is God’s Finger Doing in My Pre-Biotic Soup?

prepared for the
Gonzaga Socratic Club
Michael W. Tkacz
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Gonzaga University

Where are the Thomists?

    A few years ago I received a phone call from Dr. Stephen Meyer, then on the philosophy faculty at Whitworth College.  He had just returned from an international conference devoted to challenges to evolutionary biology from Intelligent Design Theory.  There was a bit of urgency in Dr. Meyer’s tone, so I agreed to meet him.  As it turned out, he had something of a complaint to make, for he opened our meeting by showering me with a series of questions:  Where are the Thomists?  Where are the Catholics?  How come you Thomist guys are not out there defending us Intelligent Designers?  After all, we are on the same side, are we not?  Asking Dr. Meyer the occasion of this outpouring of questions, he explained that he and the other organizers of the conference had invited several Thomists to participate and he was dismayed that, far from expressing sympathy with the Intelligent Design Movement and its challenge to Darwinism, they were quite critical of the Movement.  Perhaps feeling a bit betrayed, he wanted to ask me, a Thomist, just what was going on.
    The debate between Creationists and Evolutionists has been going on for a long time now and neither side has been especially interested in what Thomism—a minority position to be sure—has had to contribute to the discussion.  To the extent that philosophers working in the Thomistic tradition are considered at all, both sides seem to have been dissatisfied.  Secular Darwinians often view Thomists as just another species of literalists attempting to substitute the Book of Genesis for good biology—indeed, the only difference between Thomists and Protestant Creationists, on their view, is that Thomists do it in Latin.  On the other hand, Protestant Creationists have often viewed Thomists as already half-way to secularism and naturalism—no doubt due to insufficient attention to the reading of scripture.
Now come the Intelligent Designers who have revived the debate with evolutionary biology on scientific grounds.  This new challenge to Darwinism attempts to show that the biological evidence supports gradual evolution of species less than it does direct creation by a Divine Designer.  Given the philosophical sophistication of their arguments, it is perhaps natural that Intelligent Designers would assume that they had allies among traditional Thomists who are known for their systematic defense of the doctrine of creation.  Yet, Thomists have not generally been quick to jump onto the Intelligent Design bandwagon.  As Dr. Meyer discovered, the Intelligent Design Movement has, overall, not been well-received in Thomistic circles.  So, the question is:  Why?  Why have Thomists, who share with Intelligent Designers so many of the same concerns about the secularization of our society, not been more supportive of the Movement?  Why have so many Thomists hesitated to join Intelligent Design Theorists in their campaign against Darwinism?  Why do some Thomists, far from being supportive, appear even a bit hostile to the Intelligent Design project?
A bit of attention to the Thomistic philosophy of creation may help to answer these questions.  More importantly, investigating the coolness of Thomism toward Intelligent Design Theory may help to move the debate away from its polarized Creation vs. Evolution state toward a discussion that is more philosophically productive.  A look at the Thomistic understanding of God’s relationship to nature may even suggest a third alternative to the already well-known positions of the Darwinians and Intelligent Designers.

Thomas Aquinas on Creation

    Back in the days of Thomas Aquinas himself, there was a scientific revolution that seriously challenged the traditional Christian doctrine of creation.  From the time of the early Church, orthodox Christians have held that the universe was created by a transcendent God who is wholly responsible for its existence and the existence of everything in it.  In fact, this is a teaching that Christians inherited from the Jews and shared with those of the Islamic faith.  At the beginning of the thirteenth century, however, a great historical change came to Western Europe as the works of the ancient Greek natural philosophers and mathematicians became available in the Latin language for the first time.  Especially important among these works were those of Aristotle who had worked out the basic principles of nature and developed a methodology for scientific research that promised, in time, to unlock the secrets of the universe.
    This scientific revolution caused great excitement among the Latin-speaking scholars in the then new universities of Europe.  They avidly pursued research in many of the natural sciences and, essentially, founded the historical tradition of experimental science that continues today.  It was not long before progress was being made in such fields as mathematical astronomy, optics, meteorology, botany, zoology, and other sciences.  At the same time, the new science was a cause for concern, for some theologians saw in it a challenge to the doctrine of creation.  Specifically, many held that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the claim of the Greek naturalists that something cannot come from nothing and the Christian teaching of creation ex nihilo.  Indeed, the Greek philosophers used their fundamental principle as grounds for arguing that the universe is eternal:  there can be neither a first nor a last motion.  It certainly appeared to many of the contemporaries of Thomas Aquinas that one cannot have his Christian cake and scientifically eat it too; Christianity and natural science seemed to be incompatible and one must choose between the two.
    Into this medieval debate comes Thomas Aquinas.  He pointed out that the Christian conception of God as the author of all truth and the notion that the aim of scientific research is the truth indicates that there can be no fundamental incompatibility between the two.  Provided we understand Christian doctrine properly and do our science well, we will find the truth—not a religious truth and another scientific truth—but the truth, the way things actually exist and function.  Yet, what about the apparent conflict between notion of creation from nothing and the scientific principle that for every natural motion or state there is an antecedent motion or state?
    Thomas points out that the judgment that there is a conflict here results from confusion regarding the nature of creation and natural change.  It is an error that I call the “Cosmogonical Fallacy.”  Those who are worried about conflict between faith and reason on this issue fail to distinguish between cause in the sense of a natural change of some kind and cause in the sense of an ultimate bringing into being of something from no antecedent state whatsoever.  “Creatio non est mutatio,” says Thomas, affirming that the act of creation is not some species of change.  So, the Greek natural philosophers were quite correct:  from nothing, nothing comes.  By “comes” here is meant a change from one state to another and this requires some underlying material reality, some potentiality for the new state to come into being.  This is because all change arises out of a pre-existing possibility for that change residing in something.  Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists.  To be the complete cause of something’s existence is not the same as producing a change in something.  It is not a taking of something and making it into something else, as if there were some primordial matter which God had to use to create the universe.  Rather, creation is the result of the divine agency being totally responsible for the production, all at once and completely, of the whole of the universe, with all it entities and all its operations, from absolutely nothing pre-existing.
Strictly speaking, points out Thomas, the Creator does not create something out of nothing in the sense of taking some nothing and making something out of it.  This is a conceptual mistake, for it treats nothing as a something.  On the contrary, the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo claims that God made the universe without making it out of anything.  In other words, anything left entirely to itself, completely separated from the cause of its existence, would not exist—it would be absolutely nothing.  The ultimate cause of the existence of anything and everything is God who creates, not out of some nothing, but from nothing at all.
In this way, one can see that the new science of the thirteenth century, out of which our modern science developed, was not a threat to the traditional Christian doctrine of creation.  To come to know the natural causes of natural beings is a different matter from knowing that all natural beings and operations radically depend on the ultimate cause for the existence of everything:  God the Creator.  Creation is not a change.  Creation is a cause, but of a very different, indeed unique, kind.  Only if one avoids the Cosmogonical Fallacy, is one able to correctly understand the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Thomism and the Autonomy of Nature

    Two implications of this distinction between change and creation are worthy of note here.  One is that God creates without taking any time to create, he creates eternally.  Creation is not a process with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It is simply a reality:  the reality of the complete dependence of the universe on God’s agency.  The other implication is the radical otherness of God’s agency.  God’s productive causality is unlike that of any natural cause, for God not only produces what he produces all at once without any process, but also without requiring anything pre-existing or any preconditions whatsoever.  God does not act as part of a process, nor does God initiate a process where there was none before.  There is no before for God; there is no pre-existing state from which God’s action proceeds.  God is totally and immediately present as cause to any and all processes.
    On the basis of these implications for the correct understanding of creation, modern Thomists distinguish between the existence of natural beings and their operations.  God causes natural beings to exist in such a way that they are the real causes of their own operations.  Indeed, if this were not the case, then it would not have been that God created this natural being, but some other.  Salmon swim up stream to spawn.  In creating such a natural being, God created a fish that reproduces in this way.  If God created salmon without their natural reproductive agency, then he did not create salmon, but something else.
    Consider another example:  a large quadrapedic mammal, such as a hippopotamus, gives live birth to its young.  Why?  Well, we could answer this by saying that “God does it.”  Yet, this could only mean that God created hippopotamuses—indeed the mammalian order, the whole animal kingdom, and all of nature—such that these animals have the morphology, genetic make-up, etc. that are the causes of their giving live birth.  It cannot be that God “reaches into” the normal operations of hippopotamuses to cause them to give live birth.  Were one to think that “God does it” must mean that God intervenes in nature in this way, one would be guilty of the Cosmogonical Fallacy.
    Now, if this distinction between the being of something and its operation is correct, then nature and her operations are autonomous in the sense that nature operates according to the way she is, not because something outside of her is acting on her.  God does not act on nature the way a human being might act on an artifact to change it.  Rather, God causes natural beings to be in such a way that they work the way they do.  Hippopotamuses give live birth because that is the sort of thing they are.  Why are there such things as Hippopotamuses?  Well, nature produced them in some way.  What way did nature produce them and why does nature produce things in this way?  It is because God made the whole of nature to operate in this way and produce by her own agency what she produces.  Thus, God remains completely responsible for the being and operation of everything, even though natural beings possess real agency according to the way they were created.

Intelligent Designers and the Cosmogonical Fallacy

    In light of this sketch of the Thomistic account of creation and natural cause, one can perhaps understand the reluctance of contemporary Thomists to rush to the defense of the Intelligent Designers.  It would seem that Intelligent Design Theory is grounded on the Cosmogonical Fallacy.  Many who oppose the standard Darwinian account of biological evolution identify creation with divine intervention into nature.  This is why many are so concerned with discontinuities in nature, such as discontinuities in the fossil record:  they see in them evidence of divine action in the world, on the grounds that such discontinuities could only be explained by direct divine action.  This insistence that creation must mean that God has periodically produced new and distinct forms of life is to confuse the fact of creation with the manner or mode of the development of natural beings in the universe.  This is the Cosmogonical Fallacy.
    Among the most sophisticated attempts of Intelligent Design Theorists to counter the Darwinian account of the formation of organisms is the Irreducible Complexity Argument of biochemist Michael Behe.  He argues that there are specific life forms and biotic subsystems which are irreducibly complex and which could not possibly be brought about by means of natural selection.  Irreducibly complex systems and forms reveal intelligent design in nature and, therefore, indicate the reality of an Intelligent Designer of the universe.  Intelligent Design Theorists are often perplexed and, even a bit put out, that Thomists do not acknowledge the cogency of Behe’s argument.  After all, Thomists are quite open to the notion that creation provides evidence for the existence of the Creator—cosmological arguments for the existence of God based on the order of nature have long been the special preserve of Thomism.
    Why, then, have Thomists not been among Behe’s most ardent supporters?  First of all, they would agree with many biologists who have pointed out that Behe’s claims of irreducible complexity fail to distinguish between the lack of a known natural explanation of the origin of complex systems and the judgment that such explanation is in principle impossible.  Thomists, however, would go even further than most biologists by identifying the first claim as epistemological and the second as ontological.  Now, a Thomist might agree with Behe’s epistemological claim that no current or foreseeable future attempt at explanation for certain biological complexities is satisfactory.  Yet, a Thomist will reject Behe’s ontological claim that no such explanation can ever be given in terms of the operation of nature.  This ontological claim depends on a “god of the gaps” understanding of divine agency and such an understanding of God’s action is cosmogonically fallacious.


    There is, of course, much more to be said on this topic.  Let me be the first to admit that this presentation provides, at best, a sketchy account of the issues.  For one thing, a complete treatment of the relationship of Thomism and Intelligent Design Theory must take account of the variation of views on each side.  Nonetheless, what has been presented here regarding the identification of the Cosmogonical Fallacy provides some insight into the reasons for fundamental disagreement between Thomists and Intelligent Design Theorists.  The careful distinctions of Thomas Aquinas clarifying the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo exclude certain ways of conceiving of God’s relation to the natural world.  Thus, despite their many shared cultural and religious concerns, those who do philosophy in the Thomistic tradition and those who have devoted themselves to the Intelligent Design Movement find themselves on opposite sides of the crucial issue of the nature of divine agency.

Bibliographic Note

There is a growing body of literature on Intelligent Design Theory.  Consult the bibliographies available on the website of the Discovery Institute ( for a list of titles.  For the Thomistic reaction to Intelligent Design Theory, see Aquinas on Creation, tr. Steven E. Baldner and William E. Carroll (Toronto:  Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1997); William E. Carroll, “Creation, Evolution, and Thomas Aquinas,” Revue des Questions Scientifiques  171 (2000): 319-47; Marie I. George, “On Attempts to Salvage Paley’s Argument from Design,” in Science, Philosophy, and Theology, ed. John O’Callaghan (South Bend:  St. Augustine’s Press, 2004).  For theists, much of the debate over evolutionary biology is related to issues concerning the proper way to understand the opening lines of the Book of Genesis.  For a fine discussion of the Genesis text in the context of the evolution debate see Leon R. Kass, “Evolution and the Bible:  Genesis 1 Revisited,” Commentary (November 1988): 29-39.