As I’ve noted many times (e.g. here), when a thinker like Aquinas describes God as the First Cause, what is meant is not merely “first” in a temporal sense, and not “first” in the sense of the cause that happens to come before the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. causes, but rather “first” in the sense of having absolutely primal and underived causal power, of being that from which all other causes derive their efficacy. Second causes are, accordingly, “second” not in the sense of coming later in time or merely happening to come next in a sequence, but rather in the sense of having causal power only in a secondary or derivative way. They are like the moon, which gives light only insofar as it receives it from the sun.
The moon really does give light, though, and secondary causes really do have causal power. To affirm God as First Cause is not to embrace the occasionalist positionthat only God ever really causes anything to happen. Alfred Freddoso helpfully distinguishesbetween occasionalism, mere conservationism, and concurrentism. Whereas the occasionalist attributes all causality to God, mere conservationism goes to the opposite extreme of holding that although God maintains things and their causal powers in being, they bring about their effects all by themselves. Concurrentists like Aquinas take a middle ground position according to which secondary causes really have (contra occasionalism) genuine causal power, but in producing their effects still only ever act together with God as a “concurring” cause (contra mere conservationism). To borrow an example from Freddoso, if you draw a square on a chalkboard with blue chalk, both you as primary cause and the chalk as secondary cause are joint causes of the effect -- you of there being any square there at all, the chalk of the square’s being blue. God’s concurrence with the secondary, natural causes he sustains in being is analogous to that.
Concurrentism alone, the Thomist holds, can adequately account for both the natural world’s reality and its utter dependence on God. Occasionalism threatens to collapse into pantheism insofar as if it is really God who is doing everything that creaturely things seem to be doing, it is hard to see how they are in any interesting way distinct from him. (Consider that a mark of a thing’s having a substantial form rather than an accidental form -- and thus of its being a true substance, with an independent existence, rather than being a mere modification of something else -- is having its own irreducible causal powers.) Mere conservationism, on the other hand, threatens to collapse into deism, on which the world could in principle carry on just as it is even in the absence of God. (For if, as the Scholastics hold, a thing’s manner of acting reflects its manner of existing, then what can bring about effects entirely independently of God can in principle exist apart from God.)
That secondary causes are true causes, even if ultimately dependent on God, is necessary if natural science is to be possible. If occasionalism were true, absolutely everything that happens would, in effect, be comparable to a miracle and there would be no natural regularities to discover. Physics, chemistry, biology, and the like would be nothing other than branches of theology -- the study of different sorts of divine action rather than of (say) the properties of magnetism, electricity, gravitation, hydrogen, helium, bodily organs, or genetic material as such. And if God’s ways are inscrutable (as they must be given that He is pure actuality, subsistent being itself, etc.), then there could in that case be little reason to expect regularity in any of these spheres. (As Alain Besançon has argued, a tendency toward an occasionalist conception of divine causality is part of what distinguishes Islam from Christianity – and this is no doubt one reason why natural science progressed in the West and stagnated within the Islamic world.)
But it is not just in the area of efficientcausality that this middle ground position is theologically and philosophically essential. Final causality too must be regarded as immanent to nature, and precisely because efficient causal powers are. For Aquinas, there is no way to make sense of the fact that an efficient cause A regularly generates a certain specific effect or range of effects B -- rather than C, or D, or no effect at all -- if we don’t suppose that A inherently “points to” or is “directed at” B as toward an end or goal. Immanent efficientcausal power goes hand in hand with immanent finality or directedness; deny the latter and you implicitly deny the former, which is why Humean skepticism about efficient causality as a real, objective feature of the world followed upon the early moderns’ chucking-out of immanent final causes.
That means that potency as a real feature of nature would go out the door with immanent finality, since a potency is always a potency for some particular outcome, toward which it “points” or is directed. If there is no finality inherent in nature, then there are no real potencies in nature either. And if potency is not a real feature of the world, then there is no basis for an Aristotelian-Thomistic argument from change or motion -- that is to say, from the actualization of potency -- to the existence of an Unmoved Mover (or “Unactualized Actualizer”) of the world. (Indeed, as I argued in my 2011 lecture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, which you can view on YouTube, there is in general no way to argue from the world to God if potency is not a real feature of the world.)
Immanent formal causes -- substantial forms or immanent natures, inherent in natural substances themselves rather than in some Platonic third realm -- are essential for the same reason. For a thing’s substantial form is the immediate ground both of its efficient-causal powers and its “directedness” toward certain ends. Hence if formal causes are not immanent to natural substances, neither are efficient causal powers or finality (i.e. teleology or “directedness” toward an end).
The distinction between immanent or “built in” efficient, final, and formal causes on the one hand, and extrinsic or externally imposed causes on the other, is essentially coterminous with the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” versus “art” (which I’ve discussed in several places, such as hereand here). To appeal to an example I’ve used several times before, a liana vine (the sort of vine Tarzan swings around on) is a paradigmatic natural substance, whereas a hammock Tarzan might make out of living liana vines is a paradigmatic artifact. The difference is that the vines have an inherent tendency to carry out activities like taking in nutrients through their roots, growing in certain patterns, etc., but do not have any inherent tendency to function as a hammock. That is why, unless occasionally pruned, re-tied, and so forth, living liana vines will presumably not stay configured in a hammock-like way. The hammock-like function is externally imposed on the vines, whereas the functions of taking in nutrients, growing in certain patterns, etc. are “built in” to the vines, just by virtue of being vines. That is what it is for the vines to have the substantial form of a liana vine, whereas the form of being a hammock is a merely “accidental” form. And that’s what it is for the nutrient absorption and growth patterns to be instances of immanent finality or teleology while the hammock-like function is an instance of extrinsic finality or teleology. And precisely for that reason, efficient-causal powers like the ability to facilitate a restful sleep are not inherent to the vines as such, but result only from Tarzan’s having redirected the vines away from their natural tendencies and toward an end of his own.
Now just as attributing real causal power to secondary or natural causes (contra occasionalism) is in no way inconsistent with the claim that all causal power ultimately derives from God as First Cause, so too, insisting that final and formal causes are immanent to natural substances is in no way incompatible with affirming that God is the ultimate source of natural teleology (as the Supreme Intellect which directs things toward their ends, as Aquinas holds in the Fifth Way) and the ultimatesource of the forms of things (insofar as, as Aquinas also holds, the forms of things preexist in the divine intellect as the archetypes according to which God creates). The latter positions are essentially analogues, for formal and final causes, of the concurrentist position vis-à-vis efficient causes.
Indeed, concurrentism requires such a view about formal and final causes, for the reasons already indicated. If formal and final causes in no way derived from God, then neither would a thing’s efficient causal powers (which follow upon its substantial form and teleological features) depend on God. We would be left with mere conservationism at best. On the other hand, if formal and final causes were entirely extrinsic, imposed from outside by God but in noway inherent in things themselves, then neither would a thing’s efficient causal powers -- which, again, follow upon its form and its teleological features -- be inherent in it. We would be left with an essentially occasionalist position.
This is why the Aristotelian-Thomistic position is, as I have argued many times, fundamentally incompatible with Paleyan “design arguments” and “Intelligent Design” theory. Insofar as these approaches treat natural objects as artifacts, they essentially attribute to them merely accidental rather than substantial forms, and teleology or finality that is entirely extrinsic rather than immanent. This not only gets the natural order entirely wrong insofar as it ignores the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art,” but it leads (whether the proponents of these views realize it or not) to a conception of divine causality that threatens to collapse into occasionalism. (Though other things such writers say tend toward the opposite extreme of deism. For they hold that whether the order exhibited by natural phenomena has a divine cause is a matter of probability -- which entails that it is at least in principle possible that the formal, final, and efficient causes of things might lack a divine sustaining cause. The Thomist view, of course, is that this is not possible even in principle, so that the existence of a divine source of formal, final, and efficient causality is not a matter of mere probability but rather of metaphysical necessity.)
Earlier I cited the moon’s illumination of the earth, and Freddoso’s example of the chalk, as illustrations of the idea that secondary efficient causes have genuine causal power of their own even though that power ultimately depends on something outside them. Are there examples that might help us to understand how finality, teleology, or directedness can be both immanent to natural substances and yet dependent on a divine source?
There are. Consider, first, a simple analogy. A white wall on which ordinary sunlight is shining is white and not at all red. A white wall on which red light is shining is in one sense red, but it derives its redness entirely from the light. And a red wall on which ordinary sunlight is shining is in some sense red inherently, but the redness is nevertheless manifest only insofar as the light is shining on it. Now compare God’s imparting of teleology to natural substances to the light’s shining on a wall. Natural teleology as writers like Paley understand it -- something entirely extrinsic to nature -- can be compared to the redness a white wall has only when the red light is shining on it. But natural teleology as Aquinas understands it is like the redness a red wall has when ordinary sunlight is shining on it. The redness is really there in the wall, yet it cannot in any way manifest itself apart from the light. (I ignore the scientific details as irrelevant to the purpose of the analogy, and I do not claim that the analogy is perfect, only suggestive.)
Or consider signs, linguistic and otherwise. The word “triangle” and the symbol Δ can both be used to represent triangles in general. Now neither one can do so on its own, for each by itself is a mere set of physical marks with no symbolic content. A mind must impart such content to them. Moreover, the connection between the word “triangle” and triangles is entirely arbitrary, an accident of the history of the English language. And even Δ hardly resembles all triangles; for example, there are obvious respects in which it does not resemble right triangles, or green ones, or very large ones. All the same, there is obviously something inherent to Δ which makes it a more natural symbol for triangles in general than the word “triangle” is. Though both symbols ultimately depend for their symbolic content on a mind which imparts that content to them, Δ nevertheless has an inherentaptness for representing triangles in general that “triangle” does not. Now compare God’s imparting of teleology to natural objects to a mind’s imparting symbolic content to signs. For Paley and his conception of teleology as entirely extrinsic, natural objects are like the word “triangle,” whereas for Aquinas they are like Δ. As with the word, the symbol Δ refers to triangles in general only insofar as that meaning is imparted to it, but there is still a natural connection between Δ and triangles in general that does not exist between “triangle” and triangles in general. (Again, I do not say that the analogy is perfect, only suggestive.)
A final analogy is taken from linguistic representation specifically. If we consider the words and sentences we speak and write, it is obvious that they get their meaning from the community of language users that produces them, and ultimately from the ideas expressed by those language users in using them. Apart from these users, these linguistic items would be nothing more than meaningless noises or splotches of ink. Still, once produced, they take on a kind of life of their own. Words and sentences printed in books or recorded on tape retain their meaning even when no one is thinking about them; indeed, even if the books or tapes sit in a dusty corner of a library or archive somewhere, ignored for decades and completely forgotten, they still retain their meaning. Moreover, language has a structure that most language users are unaware of, but which can be studied by linguists. Still, if the community of language users were to disappear entirely – every single one of them killed in a worldwide plague, say – then the recorded words that were left behind would in that case revert to meaningless sounds or marks. While the community of language users exists, its general background presence is all that is required for meaning to persist in the physical sounds and markings, even if some of those sounds and markings are not the subject of anyone’s attention at a particular moment. But if the community goes away altogether, the meaning goes with it.
By analogy (and here too I do not claim that the analogy is exact) we might think of the relationship of the divine intelligence of Aquinas’s Fifth Way to the system of final causes in the natural world as somewhat like the relationship of language users to language. God directs things to their ends, but the system thereby created has a kind of independence insofar as it can be studied without reference to God Himself, just as linguists can study the structure of language without paying attention to the intentions of this or that language user. The directedness toward certain ends is in a sense just “there” in unintelligent causes like the meaning is just “there” in words once they have been written. At the same time, if God were to cease directing things toward their ends, final causes would immediately disappear, just as the meaning of words would disappear if all language users disappeared. In this way, immanent teleology plays a role similar to secondary causes in the order of efficient causes, as I suggested above. Just as secondary causes have real causal power of their own, even if it derives ultimately from God as First Cause, so too natural objects have immanent teleology, even if it derives ultimately from God as ordering intelligence. (This is notintended as an exposition or defense of the Fifth Way itself, mind you -- for that see Aquinas.)
As I have said, to deny the immanence of teleology would be implicitly to deny that natural substances have real causal power and that there is any real potency in nature -- and thus to undermine the foundations of natural science and natural theology (or at least any natural theology that argues from the world to God). It would also undermine the possibility of natural law. For there can be such a thing as natural law only insofar as there are ends toward which human beings are naturally and inherently directed, and which we can therefore know by studying human nature. If teleology is entirely extrinsic -- no more immanent to nature than the time-telling function is to the metal parts of a watch -- then it can only exist in the world, including human beings, insofar as it is imposed on it entirely from outside either by us or by God. If by us, then ethics is essentially a human invention; if by God, then it is a matter of sheer divine command, which entails that we could know what is good or bad for us only by reference to those commands rather than by reference to human nature itself. (I discussed this issue at greater length in an earlier post.)
In short, natural law, natural science, and natural theology presuppose the reality of nature -- nature as something which, though ultimately dependent on God (and necessarily so), nevertheless is distinct from God and thus can at least partiallybe understood without reference to God. That is why we can know that certain actions are good for us and others bad whether or not we know that the former have been commanded by God and the latter forbidden by Him; it is why we can do physics, chemistry, and biology without constantly asking “What were God’s intentions in making [quarks, phosphorus, dandelions, etc.]?”; and it is why we can know that teleology and potency are real features of the world whether or not we know that there is a God (so that the arguments for the existence of God from the reality of natural teleology and potency are not circular arguments).
You might say that the natural order is the metaphysical middle man between human beings and God. There are certain kinds of religious sensibility eager to cut out the middle man – to deny nature, or do dirt on it, or make it “respectable” by absorbing it into the order of grace. Sometimes this takes a “high church” form – pantheism, say, or occasionalism, or Barthianism and some other strains of Protestantism, or the Catholic nouvelle theologie. (I said something about some of these views in an earlier post.) Sometimes it takes a “low church” form, as with Bible-thumping (or Quran-thumping) fideism, or the crude picture of natural objects as artifacts of “the ‘carpenter’ of cheap apologetics” (as Gilson once described the anthropomorphic god of popular design arguments). What these otherwise very different views have in common is a tendency to deny that the natural order per se really has anything interesting or important to tell us -- to insinuate that we have to go straight to theology for that. Zealous to honor the Creator, they end up insulting His creation.
And now, for you Boz Scaggs fans who have held on to the end, thinking this post had something to do with his classic Middle Man, here’s the best known cut from the album.