St Thomas Aquinas: Is God Making it Snow?

As readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy know, I am obsessed with the relationship between divine causality/agency and creaturely causality/agency and have devoted several blogs to it, including a five-article series that begins with the physicist Stephen Hawking and ends with the metaphysician Austin Farrer. I keep reading and writing on the topic, but my understanding hasn’t gotten much further than the mysterious notion of double agency.  Yet as unfathomable as double agency may be, I find it a more satisfactory “explanation,” both philosophically and spiritually, than any view that pits divine agency over against creaturely agency.

If God has created the world from out of nothing, and if he sustains this world in being at every moment, how do we formulate the interaction of God and the ordinary events of the world? Let’s put to the side for the moment the even more complex and difficult question of divine predestination and human freedom. What about something as simple as putting a kettle of water on the oven and turning on the heat. Is it God that makes it boil or the gas fire? While it might seem difficult for those of us raised in a naturalistic culture to believe, one classical position asserts that God is the one and only true cause of the boiling. The position is called occasionalism. Whereas most of us see a causal connection between the fire and the boiling (the fire causes the boiling), the occasionalist claims that God directly causes the fire to generate heat and (then) directly causes the water to boil—the relationship between the two events is accidental and non-necessary. Creaturely operations and events are but the occasion for the exercise of divine power. In a sense God is creating and re-creating the world at every moment. There are no genuine secondary or intermediate causes. There is only the direct action of the Omnipotence.

In the medieval period Islamic philosophers developed theories of occasionalism as a consequence of their dual commitment to the creatio ex nihilo and to supernatural miracles. According to the philosopher al-Ghazali, as Nazif Muhtaroglu explains, “the causal relation between any two events can be justified neither logically nor by experience”:

Let us consider the following example he gives, where fire and a piece of cotton are found together, and the cotton is burned. A piece of cotton and fire cannot have a logically necessary relation between themselves because we can think of one event without the other, which does not lead to any contradiction. Nor can observation justify that the burning of the cotton is a necessary causal effect of fire, because we observe only that the fire and burnt cotton appear together, and not the fire causing the burning. Later, al-Ghazali focuses on the apparent causal relations between events, arguing that the causal relation between any two events can be justified neither logically nor by experience. Let us consider the following example he gives, where fire and a piece of cotton are found together, and the cotton is burned. A piece of cotton and fire cannot have a logically necessary relation between themselves because we can think of one event without the other, which does not lead to any contradiction. Nor can observation justify that the burning of the cotton is a necessary causal effect of fire, because we observe only that the fire and burnt cotton appear together, and not the fire causing the burning. Al-Ghazali’s point here is that correlations do not imply causal relations, as David Hume would similarly affirm six hundred years later. (“An Occasionalist Picture of the Universe“)

St Thomas Aquinas was well acquainted with Islamic denials of created causality, if not directly through al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers then indirectly through The Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides.  No doubt he had Ash’arite construals of occasionalism in mind when he addressed the question of divine creation and causality in his Writings on the “Sentences” of Peter Lombard. In the fourth article Aquinas rejects the view that “God immediately does all things such that nothing else is the cause of anything” (II Sent. 1.1.4; Aquinas on Creation, p. 83) and defends the position that the immediacy of divine creation does not compromise genuine creaturely being and activity. Even though creatures are nothing apart from the immediate and continuous action of their Creator, they are not insubstantial, ephemeral nothings. God has given to them a stability of being and a propensity toward the perfection of their natures.  Though St Athanasius could sometimes speak of the world’s vulnerability to nothingness, as if at any moment it might fall back into the void, Aquinas believes this is a mistaken way to view the world and its ontological dependence upon the Deity.  As A. D. Sertillanges elaborates:

That beings tend to non-being, taken literally, has no meaning; for non-being, not being anything, cannot be the object of a tendency. Anything that is tends to being, and not only to being but to the perfection of its being. This is intelligible, because it participates God, to whom belongs being in its fulness, so that anything that participates God can have no other law than to tend to the perfection of this participation, that is to say to the perfection of itself. … The tendency of every creature to persevere in being is a reality, but this tendency does not come from its own sole power, it comes from the Cause from which it derives its being; as, on the other hand, if we say that it tends to non-being, this is not because of its nature but because of its deficiency. Subtly perhaps but none the less truly, St. Thomas writes: ‘non-being has no power against the being of creatures, but also it has no power to preserve them’ [De Pot. 5.1.8]. (Quoted in E. L. Mascall, Existence and Analogy, p. 147)

It is commonsensically obvious to Aquinas that natural causes and their effects exist. A human being is not made by just anything, he observes; rather it is “always generated from the seed of man. The seed of the father, therefore, is the efficient cause of the son” (II Sent. 1.1.4; p. 83). Similarly, fire produces heat but ice never does. An 18th century deist might therefore conclude that divine creation must be pushed back into the distant past; but Aquinas rejects that possibility:

Now a creature is able to be the cause of the things that are produced through motion and generation, either because it exerts causality over an entire species, as the sun is the cause of a man and of a lion, or because it exerts causality on only one individual, as a man generates man, and fire generates fire. Nevertheless, God is also the cause of these things, operating more intimately in them than do the other causes that involve motion, because He Himself gives being to things. The other causes, in contrast, are the causes that, as it were, specify that being. The entire being of any thing cannot come from some creature, since matter is from God alone. Being, however, is more intimate to anything than those things by which being is specified. Hence it [being] remains even if those other things are removed. … Hence the operation of the Creator pertains more to what is intimate in a thing than does the operation of any secondary causes. The fact, therefore, that a creature is the cause of some other creature does not preclude that God operate immediately in all things, insofar as His power is like an intermediary that joins the power of any secondary cause with its effect. In fact, the power of a creature cannot achieve its effect except by the power of the Creator, from whom is all power, preservation of power, and order [of cause] to effect. For this reason … the causality of the secondary cause is rooted in the causality of the primary cause. (II Sent. 1.1.4; pp. 85-86)

Being is always being continuously bestowed. This is why the Angelic Doctor can insist that divine causality is more intimate to the creature than the operation of secondary causes. The transcendent gift of esse enables and grounds creaturely activity. At every step of the way, at every moment, God is actively conferring existence upon creatures, upon their activities and upon the natural effects of their activities. “By one operation alone,” Aquinas writes, “He is able to produce all effects that He wishes to produce. Hence, God, without the operation of nature, is able to make the same effect specifically that nature produces” (II Sent. 1.1.4; p. 86).

I glance out the window. It’s snowing. A scientist can describe all the conditions that needed to come together to bring this wonderful storm to Roanoke, Virginia; but the meteorological web of cause-and-effect is itself a product of God’s creative activity. God is making it snow, and he is doing so through genuine secondary causes. Steven Baldner and William Carroll explain it this way:

Since creatures do have their own being, they are able to be true, autonomous causes. The problem for Article Four is to explain how it is that, although God is the immediate cause of all being, creatures are still true causes of effects. Aquinas’ explanation is that creatures are the true causes of whatever comes to be either through motion or generation and that God is the cause of the being of all things, even of that which is produced through motion or generation. God is the constant cause of all being; creatures cause, as it were, only the determinations of being. The creature causes this form to be in this matter, by bringing the form into actuality from the potency of matter, but God causes the matter to be and thus gives it a potency to form. Creatures, thus, are the true causes of most substantial and accidental changes in that they produce the new form, but as to the production of being, God is always the only cause. (pp. 49-50)

The gist of the above, I think, is clear, even if one does not have a good grasp of Aristotelian causality.

Why has God chosen to work through secondary causes? “From his goodness,” states Aquinas, “for He wishes to give the power of causing to others also” (II Sent. 1.1.4; p. 86).

So is God making it snow? Yep. And it’s beautiful.

(Go to “Does Creatio ex Nihilo Exclude an Everlasting Universe?“)

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4 Responses to St Thomas Aquinas: Is God Making it Snow?

  1. Excellent write up. The trouble I’ve always had with Aquinas’ system of causality is twofold: a) it doesn’t really explain to me how the freedom of creatures fits into the omni-causal power of God (i.e. it seems to result in compatibilism); and b) it seems to make all instances of natural evil the directly willed acts of God.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    After I posted this article, I began to wonder if I had interpreted this sentence from Aquinas, quoted in the article, correctly: “By one operation alone He is able to produce all effects that He wishes to produce. Hence, God, without the operation of nature, is able to make the same effect specifically that nature produces” (II Sent. 1.1.4; p. 86)

    I wrote Dr Steven Baldner, one of the translators and asked him. Here is his reply:

    The idea is this. If you ask who or what causes the snow to fall, it is both true to say that God is causing it and also that the forces of nature are causing it. God causes the effect in that he is making everything to exist at all times. Without his constant creative causality, nothing would exist. God is the on-going cause of esse or being — the being of absolutely everything other than himself. But God makes natural things to exist and these natural things have their own causal powers and abilities. God causes them to have their causal powers, and these causal powers are real. They explain the events in question as natural events. But if one asks the metaphysical question about existence rather than non-existence, God is the cause. Since all natural causes and events are existent, they can operate as natural causes, and the study of nature (natural science) goes no farther than the study of such natural causes. But these are fully real and give real causal explanations. When we turn, however, to the question of existence and metaphysics, we are not looking at the same events from a fundamentally more basic — the most basic — point of view. This is why both God and the forces of nature are causing the snow to fall, but they do so in very different ways and their causality answers different sorts of questions that we might ask.

    I’m glad to receive confirmation that my reading was on target. 🙂

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