Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Brother Benignus: The Evolutionary Hypothesis

Excerpt from Nature, Knowledge and God: An Introduction to Thomistic Philosophy, Ch. XXI. (1947)
By Brother Benignus, F.S.C., Ph.D.

The Evolutionary Hypothesis

THE view of nature upon which the argument now in question is based is the evolutionary view. According to this view, the original living things on the earth developed from non-living matter, and all the variety of living things which have ever existed on the earth developed from these original ones. Thomistic philosophy offers no theoretical objection to this hypothesis [emphasis added]; and whether the hypothesis represents a fact is a question for natural science to answer. Let us, therefore, accept it now hypothetically in order to see where it leads us in reference to the question of whether there is purposive design in nature.

Let us suppose, then that living beings of some very simple sort – say, unicellular or even sub-cellular organisms – originally evolved from non-living matter, and that all subsequent forms of biological life have evolved, through many intermediate stages, from these first simple forms of life. The forms of life which now exist as relatively permanent types are those which, because of their kind of structure, found a way of fitting into the environment which nature supplied. They, the survivors, were not specially produced; they were simply some forms among innumerable forms impartially produced; but, by accident of a structure that jibed both within itself and with the world around it, they were kept alive while less lucky forms were destroyed. Even these survivors do not really survive; that is, they do not for any very long time, remain unchanged. They are, in fact, changing in every generation, perhaps in ways so slight as to be imperceptible, perhaps by some sudden perceptible development or mutation; in any case, their offspring are never exactly the same as they. Some of the offspring change in a lucky way; that is, they differ from their parents by having some new structure that is better adapted to their surroundings. Some others change in an unlucky direction and fit less well into their surroundings. More of the former will live long enough to produce offspring themselves, so that the whole family tree will grow faster and bigger in the direction of its more fortunate branch, until the changes in that direction become so emphasized that we call some later generation of offspring a new species. Thus the present species of plants and animals in the world have come to be what they are.

What does it all mean? Why have some of the simple living forms remained simple. Why have some developed into highly complex organisms. Why have some become plants and some animals? Were the cells which began each of these lines of evolution different from one another, or were they the same? If they were the same what caused their later differentiation? The probable answer to all these questions is environmental conditions and gene mutations. That answer explains hardly anything, but it leads to some fertile reflections concerning the emergence of the various forms of life. If the environment is the external condition of the forms of living of living beings, the internal conditions must be sought in the stuff which becomes the various forms. The cell which resists death by dividing and by becoming a multicellular organism, the cell which provides, as it were, for future contingencies by gene mutations, must have in it some mighty urge to live. The original simple forms of life, pursued their long road of self-differentiation because it was the only alternative to death; they had to evolve or die. That they have not died, that they have filled the earth with countless kinds of life, is evidence if the unthinkably rich potentiality for life which was originally locked away in them, and which the struggle to live has brought to actuality in so many different channels. Like June, nature’s urge to live keeps “bustin’ out all over”; life tries everything in order to avoid extinction.

Matter Is Urge to Live

But what of life’s beginning? On the hypothesis which we have adopted, living things originally evolved from non-living matter. We must, consequently, locate the “urge to live” in matter itself. But can the non-living have an urge to live? It must have, for surely a becoming alive is as strongly indicative of an urge to live as is a fighting to stay alive. Then it is in matter itself that the urge to live resides. What is matter? Today the usual answer is that matter is energy; modern physics thinks in images of force and activity, rather than in images of bulk and chunk. Units of electrical charge have replaced solid particles of stuff. Every form of matter is some form of energy, and primary matter is indeterminate energy. And out of this matter or energy all living organisms have evolved. Perhaps, then, energy or matter is fundamentally, “urge to live.” However strange this may sound, it is, not un-Thomistic. St. Thomas called it matter’s appetite for the most perfect actuality attainable: 

"But since, as was already stated, everything which undergoes motion tends as such toward a divine likeness in order to be perfect in itself, and since a thing is perfect in so far as it becomes actual, it follows that the intention of everything that is in potentiality is to tend to actuality by way of movement. Hence the more final and more perfect an act is the more is the appetite of matter inclined to it. Therefore the appetite whereby matter seeks form must tend toward the last and most perfect act to which matter can attain, as to the ultimate end of generation. Now certain grades are to be found in the acts of forms. For primary matter is in potentiality, first of all, to the elemental form. While under the elemental form, it is in potentiality to the form of a compound. Considered under the form of a compound, it is in potentiality to a vegetative soul; for the act of such a body is a soul. Again the vegetative soul is in potentiality to the sensitive, and the sensitive to the intellective. This is shown in the process of generation, for first in the generation is the fetus living a plant life, afterwards the life of an animal, and finally the life of man. After this no later or more noble form is to be found in things that are generated and corrupted. Therefore, the last end of all generation is the human soul, and to this does matter tend as to its ultimate form. Consequently the elements are for the sake of the compounds, the compounds for the sake of living things; and of these, plants are for the sake of animals, and animals for the sake of man. Therefore, man is the end of all generation." (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 22.)

St. Thomas in the above passage, is not teaching evolution in the modern sense of that term, but someone coming upon the passage out of its context might well believe it to be an effort to indicate a metaphysical ground for the evolutionary process. The Angelic Doctor is teaching something that is very relevant to the problem of evolution, something which makes evolution intelligible. What he is teaching is that primary matter is appetite or urge to live and ultimately to live on the highest possible level, that is to say, as the body of man. The clear implication of this is that the first cause of the processes through which matter passes in its evolution is the end of those processes.

If, therefore, we could ask St. Thomas why matter becomes alive, he might answer: because matter is urge to live; life is the end of matter. From inorganic matter in the universe there was somehow produced living matter in at least this part of the universe, and, ever since, life has fought strenuously and successfully to keep itself in being and to attain higher levels. In order to succeed, it had to adopt a million forms whose variety staggers the imagination; but succeed it did. If, now, we ask natural science why matter became alive, only one answer can be given: it had to. Any other answer would amount to a rejection of chemistry and physics. And the answer is the same if we ask why life evolved to its present variety of forms: it had to. St. Thomas’ answer and the answer of science are in no way in conflict or disagreement; indeed, they amount to the same thing, although each states that thing from a different point of view. As always, the philosopher speaks from the point of view of action and scientist from the point of view of process. The evolution of matter is a series of actions determined by the ultimate act which is their end; it is also a series of mechanical processes produced by the series of actions. The series of processes is necessary if the series of actions is to take place and attain its end. If matter is urge to live, it must go through the evolutionary process. If it must go through the process, it is urge to live. But if matter is urge to live, should not all matter become alive? No. The scientist, speaking in terms of process, will answer that all matter cannot possibly come alive in the present order of nature, because inorganic nature supplies the conditions for life. The teleologist, speaking in terms of ends and actions, will give what amounts to the same answer: All matter does not come alive because the urge to live is not suicidal; the end of nature determines means to its own attainment, it does not swallow up its means and destroy itself. The means which nature provides in order to attain its end are the physico-chemical processes which science studies; and nature is so ordered that these processes culminate not only in life, the end of nature, but also in the inorganic conditions of life, the means to that end. In brief, mechanical and final causality are reciprocal in nature; that is the consistent Aristotelian-Thomistic position.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"A law that is not just, seems to be no law at all"

LAWS framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Proverbs 8:15: "By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things." Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good─and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver─and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws.

On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above─either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory─or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him─or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), "a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all." Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right, according to Matthew 5:40-41: "If a man . . . take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two."

Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, "we ought to obey God rather than man."

~St. Thomas Aquinas: S.T. I-II, q. 96, a. 4. (Whether human law binds a man in conscience?)

Allegory of the Good Government, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
Fresco, 1338-40; Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

Allegory of Bad Government (detail),
by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The baptizing of Christ

"CHRIST wished to be baptized in order to consecrate the baptism wherewith we were to be baptized. And therefore it behooved those things to be shown forth which belong to the efficacy of our baptism: concerning which efficacy three points are to be considered. First, the principal power from which it is derived; and this, indeed, is a heavenly power. For which reason, when Christ was baptized, heaven was opened, to show that in future the heavenly power would sanctify baptism."

~St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica, III, Q. 39, A. 5.
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Baptism of Christ, by Donatello. 
Marble, after 1425; Duomo, Arezzo

Sunday, January 3, 2016

On friendship

“CONSEQUENTLY youths, who find much pleasure in conversation and readily agree with others, quickly make friends. This does not happen with old people, for they cannot become friends of those whose company and conversation they do not enjoy. The same reason holds for morose persons who are quarrelsome and critical of what others do. But such people, i.e., the elderly and the severe, can be benevolent inasmuch as they affectively wish good to others and even effectively assist them in their needs. However, they do not really become friends because they do not live with nor take pleasure in the company of their friends—activities that seem to be the special works of friendship.”

~St. Thomas Aquinas: Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8, Lect. VI

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"Spiritual age"

"NOW the soul, to which spiritual birth and perfect spiritual age belong, is immortal; and just as it can in old age attain to spiritual birth, so can it attain to perfect (spiritual) age in youth or childhood; because the various ages of the body do not affect the soul."

~St. Thomas Aquinas: S.T. III, Q. 72, A. 8. (The sacrament of Confirmation)

The Sacrament of Confirmation, 
by Jacques Dumont (1701 - 1781). 
Oil on canvas; Private collection.

The Magi are the first-fruits of the Gentiles

"THE Magi are the "first-fruits of the Gentiles" that believed in Christ; because their faith was a presage of the faith and devotion of the nations who were to come to Christ from afar. And therefore, as the devotion and faith of the nations is without any error through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, so also we must believe that the Magi, inspired by the Holy Ghost, did wisely in paying homage to Christ."

~St. Thomas Aquinas: S.T. III, Q. 36, A. 8. (The manifestation of the newly born Christ)

Adoration of the Magi, by Altichiero da Zevio. 
Fresco, 1378-84; Oratorio di San Giorgio, Padua.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Blessed Virgin Mary, Mediatrix

"NOTHING hinders certain others from being called mediators, in some respect, between God and man, forasmuch as they cooperate in uniting men to God, dispositively or ministerially."

~St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica, III, Q. 26. A. 1.

The Coronation of the Virgin, by Bernardo Daddi.
Tempera on wood, 1340-45; National Gallery, London.

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