The Cosmos as Total Object of Creation

This discussion covers ScG, II.39–45. In this part of the work, St. Thomas considers the distinction of things. Given circumstances, our comments here will be brief:

  1. some notes about the context and purpose of these chapters overall;
  2. consideration of a particular theme in these chapters: the universe;
  3. concluding remarks for student discussion (with some appendices).

4.1. The “Origin of Species”

As one commentator observes, these chapters present crucial aspects—but not the entirety—of St. Thomas’s “understanding of the origin of species, his explanation of the fact that the complex world produced by God consists in an ordered arrangement of all sorts of natural kinds, which we would characterize as not just biological species, but also physical, chemical, astronomical, and geological species of things.” (Norman Kretzmann, The Metaphysics of Creation: Aquinas’s Natural Theology in Summa Contra Gentiles II (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005), 184.) The term “distinction” is used to denote how one kind is set apart from another, as genera would be distinguished and sub-distinguished into further and further species.

I said above that Aquinas’s does not present the entirety of his account of origins—what is missing? Well, St. Thomas is focused upon finding the origin of the distinction of things in creation. It does not present a complete account of how all of the options which are eliminated in these chapters as candidates for that origin do, in point of fact, cooperate as secondary causes. This focus is fitting given St. Thomas’s theocentric mode. Sometimes, these candidates are presented in lieu of God. At other times, the same candidates or other ones are presented as subsequent causes to God. Neither mode is sufficient.

We might also compare this discussion with what has come beforehand in the ScG (Brian Davies, in SCG Guide, 142, makes a similar point, I have found). Up until ScG, II.39, one might generalize the discussion as an answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Now we begin to ask, “Why is the something this way rather than another? Why this multiplicity of things?” Let us add to our outline of ScG, Book II:

[i] Discussion of the nature of ScG, Book II (II.1–5)
[1] The production of things in being, that is, creation (II.6–38)
[2] The distinction of the things created (II.39–45)
[a] Arguments against the false candidates (II.39–44)
[i] That the distinction of things is not from matter (II.39–40)
[1] Not from chance (II.39)
[2] Not from the diversity of matter as first cause (II.40)
[ii] That the distinction of things is not from created agents (II.41–44)
[3] Not from agents as contrary to each other, generally or good vs. evil (II.41)
[4] Not from agents as ordered to each other (II.42)
[5] Not from agents introducing new forms (II.43)
[6] Not from the “final cause” of merit or demerit (II.44)
[b] Shows the true first cause of the distinction of things (II.45), namely, God

4.2. What is a Universe?

We should note a particular theme which arises with some frequency. This is the notion of the universe, not just “creation” or “the world” or “created things” as a sort of sum total or creaturely heap. 

As Ferrariensis notes, “St. Thomas in this place speaks of the formal and specific distinction, in which manner the essential parts of the universe are distinguished.” (In ScG, on II.40, (Leon.13:360).) What do we learn about the origin of these essential parts? See below.

(1) II.39, 5th“Now the form of the universe consists in the distinction and order of its parts.”A key premise in the argument, also notes a formal cause.
(2) II.39, 6th“But the good and the best in the universe consists in the mutual order of its parts, which is impossible without distinction, since by this order the universe is established as one whole, which is its best.”Not only a key premise, but ties the form with the good.
(3) Ibid.“Therefore, the order of the parts of the universe and their distinction is the end of the production of the universe.”The end of a production is the form of the product.
(4) II.42, 2nd“Now the best among all things caused is the order of the universe, in which the good of the universe consists …”Compare to text (2).
(5) II.42, 4th“… the distinction and order of the parts of the universe, which order is the ultimate form, so to speak.”Compare to texts (1) and (3).
(6) Ibid., 5th“If the distinction of the parts of the universe and their order is the proper effect of the first cause—as being the ultimate form and the greatest good in the universe …”This contains in one antecedent condition much of the above; note the consequent!
(7) II.44, 1st“Now the greatest good in things created is the perfection of the universe, consisting in the order of distinct things, because in all things the perfection of the whole takes precedence of the perfection of each part.”This shows that goodness above, say in text (2), is tied to perfection.
(8) II.44, end“Therefore, God, the maker of all, would not make the whole universe the best of its kind if he made all the parts equal, because many degrees of goodness would be wanting to the universe, and thus it would be imperfect.”This seems to introduce a new idea, a sort of “totality of perfection” principle.
(9) II.45, 2nd“Therefore, there would not be a perfect likeness of God in the universe if all things were of one degree.”The universe must be a likeness of God;, see also 6th argument.
(10) Ibid., 4th“… the universe of creatures, if they are of many degrees, is more perfect than if things were of but one degree.”Compare to text (8), and see also ibid., 5th argument.
(11) Ibid., 7th“Now the good of order among diverse things is better than any one of those things that are ordered taken by itself: for it is formal in respect of each as the perfection of the whole in respect of the parts.”Compare this text to (1), (3), and (5), among others.
(12) Ibid., end“For each one in its nature is good, but all together are very good, on account of the order of the universe, which is the ultimate and noblest perfection in things.”The “valde bona” of Genesis 1:31 interpreted qua universe.

If ScG, II.39–45 are about the origin of the essential parts of the universe, then what are those essential parts? Perhaps later chapters are meant to elucidate this.

4.3. From Medieval to Modern Cosmology

We should also consider some contemporary cosmologists on the “origin” of all things.

“What causes the universe to pop out of nothing? No cause is needed. If you have a radioactive atom, it will decay, and quantum mechanics gives the decay probability in a given interval of time, say, a minute. There is no reason why the atom decayed at this particular moment and not another. The process is completely random. No cause is needed for the quantum creation of the universe.” Alexander Vilenkin, “The Beginning of the Universe”
“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to set the Universe going.” Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design
“We humans are the species that makes things. So when we find something that appears to be beautifully and intricately structured, our almost instinctive response is to ask, ‘Who made that?’ The most important lesson to be learned if we are to prepare ourselves to approach the universe scientifically is that this is not the right question to ask. It is true that the universe is as beautiful as it is intrinsically structured. But it cannot have been made by anything that exists outside of it, for by definition the universe is all there is, and there can be nothing outside it. And, by definition, neither can there have been anything before the universe that caused it, for if anything existed it must have been part of the universe. So the first principle of cosmology must be ‘There is nothing outside the universe.’ … The first principle means that we take the universe to be, by definition, a closed system. It means that the explanation for anything in the universe can involve only other things that also exist in the universe.” Lee Smolin, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity
“Just as Darwin explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.” Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design
Neil Turok notes that his cosmological model of the collisions of enormous three-dimensional membranes is “philosophically very appealing. … Time is infinite, space is infinite, and they have always been here. It is exactly what the steady-state-universe people wanted. Our model realizes their goal.” For Neil Turok and Paul Steinhardt [The Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang] “the big bang is not the beginning of space and time, but, rather, an event that is, in principle, fully describable using physical laws. Nor does the big bang happen only once. Instead the universe undergoes cycles of evolution.”

The quotations on the following chart are borrowed from a presentation given by Prof. William E. Carroll in Santiago, Chile (5 Sept 2017). More of his work can be found online; e.g., “Stephen Hawking’s Creation Confusion.”

If one is attentive, the above quotations attribute to physical processes an origin of distinction ruled out by St. Thomas’s considerations in these passages of the Summa contra Gentiles.

"Sed contra" or "Distinguo" or "Amplius" below ...

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