[Article] Theistic Creation and Natural Philosophy

Accompanies Wagner, “No Cause, No Credo”

and Tkacz, “Thomas Aquinas on Instrumental Creation, the Cosmogonical Fallacy, and the Intelligibility of Nature”

Steven Baldner
St. Francis Xavier University
Chair of Philosophy

1. Comments on Michael Tkacz, “Thomas Aquinas, Prime Matter, and the Cosmogonical Fallacy”

Michael Tkacz has offered an insight that Avicenna’s emanationist position commits the cosmogonical fallacy of assuming a kind of prior potency outside of the act of creation; this assumption of a prior potency amounts to a denial of creation. Given that instrumental causes would be a sort of power that is prior to the act of creation, this is a useful insight. In thinking of creation as a production through intermediaries, Avicenna is thinking that in some way creation is a process. God creates the First Intelligence, which creates the first soul and first sphere and also the Second Intelligence; this process is repeated until the Ninth Intelligence, which creates our world and gives forms to bring about substantial change. In this sense, creation is a process and a kind of becoming (fieri).[1] The insight here is that emanation is not just an alternate theory of creation; it implies something that is incompatible with creation ex nihilo.

Let me offer four points by way of commentary on this insight.

First, in ascribing a prior potency, Avicenna is not, in doing so, supposing some sort of material prior potency. Strictly speaking, Avicenna agrees with the definition of creation out of nothing given by Thomas that Tkacz has nicely explicated. Avicenna’s emanation is not an explanation of a making of something out of or from something else as from a material cause; nor does it involve adding any form to a preexisting matter; there is absolutely no material cause presupposed in Avicenna’s position on creation. Furthermore, Avicenna does not think of creation as involving a before and an after; it is not a beginning or a becoming in that sense. In fact, Avicenna regards creation as eternally, continually on-going.[2]

Second, for this reason, I believe, Thomas ascribes a doctrine of creation to Avicenna. In his earliest treatment of creation[3] and in later texts, such as the De potentia,[4] Thomas attributes a doctrine of creation to Avicenna. In fact, in these texts Thomas explicitly attributes a philosophical argument for creation to Avicenna. This argument is an early version of Thomas’ Fourth Way, and the Third Way is also an argument derived from Avicenna. There are also versions of these arguments in other texts from the Summa theologiae.[5] Thus, Thomas always thinks that Avicenna has provided a philosophical demonstration that God is the first cause who creates all beings out of nothing. What may be the case, however, is that in later works Thomas is reluctant to give Avicenna explicit credit for holding a doctrine of creation, in the light of Thomas’ criticism of the notion of instrumental causality as incompatible with creation. Thus, what Tkacz has shown, if this is right, is that Thomas comes to realize not so much that Avicenna does not hold a doctrine of creation but that he holds an inconsistent doctrine of creation.

Third, the inconsistency of Avicenna’s position derives from Avicenna’s mistaken claim that angels (or intelligences) can be instrumental causes in creation. This argument is mistaken, as Tkacz has shown, because any instrumental cause must always have some power or ability that is proper (proprium) to the instrument. The carpenter’s saw must possess the properties of extreme hardness and sharp, spaced teeth for cutting. However much the carpenter is the principal cause of the cutting of the wood, he does not possess, and only the saw does possess, the needed properties for cutting wood. Thus, no instrumental cause can serve in creation, because any instrumental cause would be a creature, and no creature possesses the proprium of being. Being, however, is the precise effect caused in creation. No creature, therefore, can instrumentally cause being.[6]

Fourth, I am in agreement with Tkacz that Avicenna’s emanationist position is faulty in the light of sound natural philosophy. I take Tkacz’s point that Avicenna conflates creation and natural philosophy to the extent that he regards creation as some sort of process. I would say that the more extensive mistake, as Tkacz has also pointed out, is that of supposing that substantial change is the coming to be of a new form, whereas, in fact, substantial change is the coming to be of a new composite of form and matter. It is the composite that comes to be and not the form alone. Avicenna’s error in natural philosophy is that of supposing a kind of occasionalist explanation of substantial change: on the occasion of the natural causes being in proximity, the dator formarum gives the substantial form. This, as Tkacz points out, is to deny the potency of matter in substantial change.

2. Comments on Daniel Wagner, “No Cause, no Credo”

I have no criticisms of this excellent paper, but I wish to amplify the discussion on one part of it. Dr. Wagner correctly explains that God and creatures are both causes of the same effects, but in different modes: God as the cause of esse and creatures as the natural causes of effects. Dr. Wagner has shown clearly how different Thomas’ position is from the occasionalist position. I wish to explain, in addition, that Thomas’ position is also very different from what I regard as a close cousin of occasionalism, namely, concurrentism.

The concurrentist position, developed principally by Francisco Suarez, differs from occasionalism in according causal agency to creaturely, secondary causes. The concurrentist, unlike the occasionalist, affirms that creatures are true causes of natural effects. I am the per se and immediate cause of the typing on this computer keyboard, and the lighted match is the per se and immediate cause of the burning of the paper. The concurrentist, however, insists that God is also the per se and immediate cause of these two same natural effects: God is immediately typing on this keyboard, just as I am, and He is also immediately causing the paper to burn, just as the match is. The concurrentist claim is that the very same natural effect is completely, immediately, and per se caused both by God and by the creature.[7]

Note, however, two things in Thomas’ position, brought out so well by Wagner, that sharply differentiate Thomas’ position from the concurrentist’s. First, Thomas insists on the analogy between the instrument and the principal cause:[8] the creature is the instrument, and God is the principal cause. Instruments are instruments because they have causal properties that are not present in the principal cause. The saw is very hard and has sharp, spaced teeth; these properties are not found in the carpenter, and these properties make the cutting of wood possible, which would be impossible for the carpenter without the saw. Likewise, the saw and the carpenter provide answers to very different questions: why is the cut smooth, rather than rough? The answer is the saw. Why was the cut made at two inches from the end, rather than three? The answer is the carpenter. And so also with creatures and God. Why is this paper burning? Because I lit a match, because the paper is dry, because there is oxygen in the room, and so forth. Why do paper, matches, human actions, natural processes, etc. exist rather than not exist, why is there being rather than non-being, how are these events part of a larger providential plan? The answer to these questions is God. The natural and the divine agent both cause the same effect, but they do so very differently and they provide answers to completely different sets of questions. Also, just as the carpenter could not cut a board without a saw, so God cannot produce natural effects without natural causes. He can produce miracles on this own, but that is a different thing. Only a natural cause can produce a natural effect.

Second, Thomas tells us that the creature is immediately present to the effect and is so in a way that is very different from the way that God is present to the effect. The creature is present by way of what Thomas calls suppositum;[9] that is, the creature is substantially present and the creature’s action flows from its substance. God, however, is present by power. The creature’s action is its own but relatively superficial; God’s action is intimate and profound. The creature, thus, is in a completely different relationship to the effect from that of God, even though both are producing the same effect. This is so because the kind of causality for each is radically different. The creature is acting temporally, physically; God is acting eternally and metaphysically. The action of God producing the effect is not the action of the creature producing the effect.

Now the point that I want to make is that this Thomistic view of creaturely and divine causality is not a view that creatures and God are acting concurrently in producing the same effect. Suarez developed the position that God and creatures are concurrent causes in producing exactly the same natural effect.[10] In particular, Suarez denies the two points just noted. For him, the creature is not an instrumental cause of God the primary cause,[11] and for him creatures are not substantially present while God is present through His power.[12] For Suarez, by contrast, God and creatures are sharing in the very same act: God and the match are producing the same natural effect of the burning of the paper. God, of course, as infinite cause could produce this natural effect on His own, but He allows the match to share in the production of the fire.

My purpose in bringing Suarezian concurrentism into this discussion is to make the following warning. Once you say, as Suarez does, that God and the creature are sharing in producing the same act, it then becomes clear that creatures are not really needed to produce natural effects. Since God is producing these natural effects, and since God’s power is infinite, the creature’s power is gratuitous and not needed.[13] This is exactly the conclusion that Malebranche drew when he considered the Suarezian concurrentist position.[14]

Wagner has shown that occasionalism is a slippery slope down to phenomenalism; I want to say that concurrentism is an equally slippery slope to occasionalism.[15]

There is, however, a complication in Thomas’ position that must be considered. The complication has to do with the fact that when Thomas thought of natural, secondary causes, he thought of them in a very broad context, including the heavenly bodies in this broad understanding of nature. Natural causes produce natural effects, but the nature that Thomas thought about was not just the corporeal bodies in our sublunary realm. The heavens, too, are a part of nature, and they are an integral part of natural, secondary causality, according to Thomas.

The philosophical reason for this broader consideration of nature is that the bodies in our sublunary realm, composed as they are of the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire), are not adequate to produce substantial change.[16] The active qualities from these elements are, we might say, the basic “forces” of the natural world that we know. These qualities (hot/cold; wet/dry; motion toward/away from the center) explain the interaction of all bodies in our world: why it is that when one substance is consumed by another it acquires certain properties of the thing consumed, why some things can act on some other things but not on all; and so forth. These qualities, however, are insufficient to produce substantial change. They are insufficient because their effects amount to what Thomas considers only material dispositions.[17] The early natural philosophers considered such material dispositions to be sufficient to explain nature, but that was because they left substantial change out of their account. Their consideration of nature was exclusively in terms of matter, but matter is insufficient to account for change, especially substantial change.

The Platonists[18] advanced upon this position, as they recognized the need for substantial form. They proposed separate substantial Forms to account for substantial change, but their account is deficient because they give an account of forms, but not an account of the generation and corruption of composites of matter and form. To posit a source of forms is not to explain the generation of composite things, because forms are not what is generated or destroyed.

In general, Thomas argues that there must be some superior cause, some cause beyond this sublunary world, of substantial change. The multitude of this world must be reduced to some unity, and motion must have a cause that is unmoved. However, the cause of substantial change cannot be uniformly unchanging (as the separated Forms would be), because the substantial changes do not occur always and do not occur with completely uniform results. Thus, in order to account, on the one hand, for an immobile and unitary cause of the mobile and multiform, and, on the other, to account for the irregularity of substantial change, a cause that is both immobile in some sense but also mobile in some other sense is required. The heavenly bodies fit this need.

“Since any multitude comes from a unity, and since what is immobile always stays the same, whereas what moves is various, we should realize that in the whole of nature all motion comes from what is immobile. Accordingly, to the extent that things are more immobile, to that extent they are more the causes of things that are more mobile. Heavenly bodies, however, among all bodily things, are the most immobile, for they only move with local motion. And, therefore, the motions of bodies here below are derived from the motion of a heavenly body as from a cause.”[19]

“It is necessary to posit some active mobile principle, that, through its presence and absence, causes variety in generation and corruption in bodies here below. The heavenly bodies are a cause of this sort. And, therefore, whatever here below generates and moves toward the species [movet ad speciem – that is, moves toward substantial change] is as it were an instrument of the heavenly body, as is said in Physics, II, ch.2 (194b13), “human beings are generated by human beings, and by the Sun.”[20]

We think that like is produced by like and that the heavenly bodies are not like the things here below, but Thomas finds a sufficient similarity between the heavenly and earthly bodies in that the heavenly bodies are universal causes required for generation and destruction.[21] This kind of similarity is a similarity in what Thomas would call non-univocal causes. Thus, even God is similar to the creatures He causes as the source of their being.

Finally, the causality of the heavenly bodies is not completely uniform, because it is not always operating, unlike God’s causality, which is always operating. Furthermore, the influence of the heavenly bodies is not strictly necessitating on bodies here below, because the varying material conditions affect the way in which the influence is received.[22]

The role of the heavenly bodies in causality provides a way for Thomas to explain the influence of God in moving His creatures. Since all substantial change in our realm is under the constant influence of the heavenly bodies, since the heavenly bodies are moved by the separate substances, and since the separate substances are continually caused by God, it follows that God is constantly moving things in our realm. He does so, not immediately, by causing changes as an occasionalist (or concurrentist) would have it, but He does so effectively through the natural and universal influence of the heavenly bodies, the agency of which, He is ultimately and constantly causing.

With this broader understanding of the causality of nature in mind, including that of the heavenly bodies, and also with God’s creative causality in mind, we are in a position to understand the very extensive ways in which Thomas explains that God is continually causing the things in this world. None of this causality, however, reduces to an occasionalist or concurrentist position.

In a crucial text from the De potentia, Thomas explains a four-fold way in which God is causing creatures in this world. The image Thomas uses throughout this text is the one that Suarez rejects: that God is the cause of all creatures and their actions insofar as creatures are the instruments of God’s power. “Thus, therefore, God is the cause of every action insofar as any agent is the instrument of the divine operating power.”[23]

 There are four ways, according to Thomas, in which God is the First Cause and the creature is God’s instrument in causing other things. First, God gives all creatures the powers of acting that they have. Second, God conserves these powers in existence as long as the creatures exist. “In this way God causes all actions in nature because He has given to natural things the powers through which they can act, not merely as a generator gives the power to the light and the heavy elements and does not conserve it, but rather as a cause continually holding the power in being; … thus the result is that God can be said to be the cause of action insofar as He causes and conserves the natural power in being.”[24] Third, God moves the creaturely agent to act, as an instrument is brought into position or applied to its task. This sort of action is brought about, not immediately by God, but through the motion of the heavenly bodies, which, as we have seen are influential on all terrestrial bodies. Fourth, God causes as a universal, intimate cause in all creatures, operating in all things more immediately and intimately than any other cause.[25]

These four different ways reduce, really, to two. The first, second, and fourth are different ways of expressing the fact that God is creating all things, making them to exist for as long as they exist, and causing them most profoundly; these are all expressions of God’s one creative act of giving being to creatures. The third expresses the universal influence of the heavenly bodies on motion and change in our world. God creates all things, now and always, and the heavenly bodies generate substantial changes and cause alterations in our world. In these ways, God is causing everything, but God is not the immediate cause of any natural effect qua natural effect. The immediate cause of any natural change, what Thomas calls the supposit, is always the creature. “If, therefore, we consider the agent as supposit, any particular agent is immediate to its effect. If, however, we consider the power by which an action occurs, then the power of the higher cause will be more immediate to the effect than the power of the lower cause.”[26]

The result of considering this complication is no different from what we saw in the beginning: God is the immediate and sole cause of his creative act, giving being and powers to all creatures, conserving them in being, and working in them more intimately than any other cause. Natural effects, however, are produced immediately by natural things, and not as natural effects immediately by God. It so happens that the extent of natural causality is very broad in Thomistic natural philosophy, including both terrestrial and heavenly natural causes, but the fact that natural effects are immediately caused by natural causes remains unaltered.

The fundamental mistake of occasionalist and concurrentist doctrines is that of supposing that God is the immediate cause of all natural effects. If this is claimed, there is no possibility of true creaturely agency. It does not matter whether one says that creatures in fact do no causing (occasionalism) or whether they are allowed to cause effects for which they are not needed at all (concurrentism). In either case, the creature is not a necessary cause of the effect. To maintain, however, as Thomas does, that creatures are true causes is to maintain that there is a necessary connection between them as causes and their effects. This necessary connection between creaturely cause and effect is what is denied by occasionalism and concurrentism.

3. Postscript

The two excellent papers by Tkacz and Wagner might be seen to have a common theme: the misunderstanding of instrumental causality. In the case of Avicenna, the mistake is to think that an instrument can do more than it can. No instrument, however, can cause what it does not have from its own nature; and no creature has being from its own nature. Hence, no creature can be an instrument of creation ex nihilo. In the case of occasionalists and concurrentists, the mistake is to think that instruments do too little. Their mistake is to think that an instrument has nothing properly of its own to contribute to the effect and that an instrument prevents a primary cause from being an immediate cause. An instrument, however, can only be an instrument if it has something that the primary cause does not, and its instrumentality does not block the primary cause from being intimately united to the effect but rather facilitates it. We creatures are instruments, but that fact means that God is more not less intimately at work in our world; the fact that God cannot be a natural cause draws Him closer, not farther away.

References Historically Layered

BALDNER, Steven

2016.              “Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suarez on the Problem of Concurrence,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 90: 149-61.

IBN SINA [Avicenna] (980—1037)

i.1020/27.      Al-Ilahiyyat Kitab al-Shifa in the English translation by Michael E. Marmura, The Metaphysics of the Book of the Healing (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2005).

FREDDOSO, Alfred J.

1991.              “God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes: Why Conservation is not Enough” in Philosophical Perspectives, 5: 553-85.

2002.              “Introduction” to Suarez 1597: On Creation, Conservation, and Concurrence: Metaphysical Disputations 20-22 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press): i-cxxiii.

MALEBRANCHE, Nicolas (6 August 1638—1715 October 13).

1674-75.        De la recherche de la vérité in three volumes, found in the Oeuvres complètes de Malebranche, ed. André Robinet(Paris: Vrin),II.  English translation by Lennon and Olscamp, The Search for Truth and Elucidations of the Search for Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

ROGERS, Kathrin A.

2001.              “What’s Wrong with Occasionalism?” in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 75: 346-69.

SUAREZ, Francisco (1548—1617).

1597.              Disputationes Metaphysicae (DM), vols. 25-26 of the Opera Omnia, ed. Carolus Berton (Paris: Vives, 1861).  Reference to the English translation by Alfred J. Freddoso, On Creation, Conservation, and Concurrence: Metaphysical Disputations 20-22 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002).

THOMAS AQUINAS (1225—1274).

c.1252/6.       Scriptum super libros Sententiarum (In Sent.).

1259/65.        Summa contra Gentiles (SCG).

1265-66.        Quaestiones disputatae de potentia Dei (De pot.).

1266-68.        Summa theologiae, prima pars (ST Ia).


[1] Thomas makes a similar criticism in 1259/65: SCG, lib.2, c.21, n.5, where he argues that instrumental causation implies motion, but creation cannot occur through motion.

[2] Avicenna makes all of these points in i.1020/27: The Metaphysics of the Healing, bk. VIII, ch. 3, para. 6-8, p. 272-73.

[3] c.1252/56: In Sent., lib.2, d.1, q.1, a.1, c.

[4] 1265-66: De pot., q.3, a.5, c.

[5] Such as 1266-68: ST Ia, q.45, a.5 and ST Ia, q.65, a.3.

[6] Tkacz and I agree that this is Thomas’ argument, but we might disagree about whether Thomas introduces a new argument in 1266-68: ST Ia, q.65, a.3 to show that angels cannot be instrumental causes of creation. I think that Thomas is giving the same argument there that he gave earlier in 1266-68: ST Ia, q.45, a.5 and in 1259/65: SCG, lib.2, c.21, n.7. I would interpret 1266-68: ST Ia, q.65, a.3-4 in this way. In a.3, Thomas argues against Avicenna’s emanationist position on the grounds that it misunderstands the role of instrumental causality because an instrument always presupposes something. Thomas here argues that God’s act of creation presupposes nothing, and therefore no creature can be a means of creation out of nothing. In Article 4, Thomas makes a different point. If, in an already existent world, angels are causing substantial forms to be, this is not so much an error in creation as an error in natural philosophy, which should teach us that new composite substances come to be from the potency of matter. Substantial change is not the reception of a new form from a separate cause.

[7] Suarez argues that the action caused by the creature and the action caused by God’s external action are one and the same action. 1597: DM, d.22, s.3, n.2-5. “God’s concurrence with respect to outside things is nothing other than the secondary cause’s action itself insofar as it flows per se and immediately from the First Cause.” On Creation, Conservation, and Concurrence: Metaphysical Disputations 20-22, p.212.

[8] 1259/65: SCG, lib.3, c.70, n.5. God moves the creature “sicut artifex applicat instrumentum ad proprium effectum.” 1265-66: De pot., q.3, a.7: “Sic ergo Deus est causa omnis actionis, prout quodlibet agens est instrumentum divinae virtutis operantis.” Also 1266-68: ST Ia, q.105, a.5.

[9] 1265-66: De pot., q.3, a.7: “Sic ergo si consideremus supposita agentia, quodlibet agens particulare est immediatum ad suum effectum. Si autem consideremus virtutem qua fit actio, sic virtus superioris causae erit immediatior effectui quam virtus inferioris; nam virtus inferior non coniungitur effectui nisi per virtutem superioris”.

[10] 1597: DM, d.22, s.2, n.17. God’s action is the very same action as that of the creaturely cause.

[11] 1597: DM, d.22, s.2, n.2-5; n. 17.

[12] 1597: DM, d.22, s.1, n.16.

[13] I have developed this argument more extensively: Steven Baldner 2016: “Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suarez on the Problem of Concurrence”.

[14] He drew this conclusion but reversed it. If creatures are truly causes, then the concurring God really does nothing. Malebranche’s point is that if either God or creatures are made the cause of the natural event, then the other cannot be a cause at all. Malebranche 1674-75: Elucidations of the Search after Truth, Elucidation 15, 4th Proof, Reply.

[15] For different views, see Rogers, “What’s Wrong with Occasionalism?” especially p. 349-351. Rogers argues that Suarez and Thomas both hold a concurrentist position. A defender of Suarez’ concurrentism is Alfred J. Freddoso, who argues that a doctrine of creation and conservation is insufficient because it results in a God who is too remove, a God who causes only the conditions of creatures’ acts and not the acts themselves. See Freddoso 1991: “God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes: Why Conservation is not Enough”; and Freddoso 2002: “Introduction” to On Creation, p. ci-cvii.

[16] In the passage that follows, I am explicating Thomas’ doctrine given in 1266-68: ST Ia, q.115, a.3.

[17] 1266-68: ST Ia, q.115, a.3, ad.2.

[18] Including Avicenna, according to Thomas.

[19] 1266-68: ST Ia, q.115, a.3, c.

[20] 1266-68: ST Ia, q.115, a.3, ad.2.

[21] 1266-68: ST Ia, q. 115, a.3, ad.3.

[22] 1266-68: ST Ia, q. 115, a.3, ad.4.

[23] 1265-66: De pot., q.3, a.7, c.: “Sic ergo Deus est causa omnis actionis, prout quodlibet agens est instrumentum divinae virtutis operantis.”

[24] 1265-66: De pot., q.3, a.7, c.: “hoc modo Deus agit omnes actiones naturae, quia dedit rebus naturalibus virtutes per quas agere possunt, non solum sicut generans virtutem tribuit gravi et levi, et eam ulterius non conservat, sed sicut continue tenens virtutem in esse; … ut sic possit dici Deus causa actionis in quantum causat et conservat virtutem naturalem in esse.”

[25] 1265-66: De pot., q.3, a.7, c.: “Quanto enim aliqua causa est altior, tanto est communior et efficacior, and quanto est efficacior, tanto profundius ingreditur in effectum, et de remotiori potentia ipsum reducit in actum”.

[26] 1265-66: De pot., q.3, a.7, c.: “Sic ergo si consideremus supposita agentia, quodlibet agens particulare est immediatum ad suum effectum. Si autem consideremus virtutem qua fit actio, sic virtus superioris causae erit immediatior effectui quam virtus inferioris”.