Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas

Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas

by Michael J. Dodds OP


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813229614
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 12/09/2016
Pages: 314
Sales rank: 867,455
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michael J. Dodds, O.P., is professor of philosophy and theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. He is author of The Unchanging God of Love: Thomas Aquinas and Contemporary Theology on Divine Immutability (CUA Press), and coauthor of The Seeker's Guide to Seven Life-Changing Virtues and Happily Ever After Begins Here and Now: Living the Beatitudes Today.

Read an Excerpt

Unlocking Divine Action

By Michael J. Dodds

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2012 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1989-9

Chapter One

Causality in Aquinas

Today's theoretical physicists look for a "theory of everything" to explain all that is. The earliest Greek philosophers asked a similar question: What is everything, really? They decided everything must be composed of four basic elements, earth, air, fire, and water. But which is the most basic, the most fundamental cause of all? Thales (620–550 B.C.) was for water. He thought that, down deep, everything must be water in one form or another. Anaximines (570–500 B.C.) argued for air, while Heraclitus (fl. 500 B.C.) favored fire. Anaximander (610–525 B.C.), rather remarkably, chose "none of the above." He argued that if any particular substance were most fundamental, it would annihilate all the others. Instead, he claimed that "the indeterminate" or "the infinite" must be the most basic component of all things.

These early philosophers were all looking for some basic stuff, some fundamental matter. We might call it the "material cause" of everything. Plato (427–347 B.C.) found it necessary to look beyond material causes. Since material things are constantly changing, they cannot really be known. Even as one starts to know or name one, it changes and becomes something else. He concluded that changeable things must be mere shadows or reflections of unchangeable realities that he called ideas or forms. They are the true objects of knowledge. Changeable things somehow participate or reflect the reality of those unchanging forms. In addition to material causes, therefore, there are formal or exemplar causes.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) further expanded the list of causes. Any explanation of reality requires not only material and formal causes, but also efficient and final ones. Unlike Plato, he did not see formal causes as ideas existing apart from matter, but as intrinsic principles inherent within material substances. Each changeable thing is composed of two intrinsic principles, form and matter. The formal cause explains why the thing exists as a particular kind of thing, and the material cause explains why it can cease to be what it is and become something else. The form of a chair, for instance, is not some esoteric principle existing in a realm of ideas, but the intrinsic structure or arrangement of some matter (such as wood) that makes that particular wood exist as a chair (and not as a table or cabinet). The material cause of the chair (the wood), explains why it can cease to be a chair and become something else (such as tooth picks). The efficient cause is the agent, such as the carpenter who makes the chair. The final cause is the purpose or aim behind the making, perhaps the desire to make money that sets the carpenter to work. It is "that for the sake of which" something is done. Aristotle believed that, with these four causes, he had a complete account of material things and the ways they change.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) agreed that Aristotle's four causes provide an exhaustive account of causality: "Here the Philosopher [Aristotle] reduces all causes into the four modes of causality we have mentioned, saying that all things which are called causes fall into these four modes." In the category of formal causality, however, he found a place for Plato's exemplars. Unlike Plato, he did not see these as subsistent forms but as ideas in the mind of God: "In the divine wisdom are the types of all things, which types we have called ideas—i.e., exemplar forms existing in the divine mind."

Aquinas associates causality with action. Formal, final, and efficient causality are all types of action. 8 To act means "to make something to be in act." This happens in a number of ways. When a boy makes a snowball, for example, he is the agent or efficient cause that turns the clump of snow into a ball. But the formal cause or structure, what we might call "roundness," also makes the clump of snow to be a ball. For all the boy's squishings and squashings, the clump will not be a ball until it has that shape or form or structure. Final causality is also active in the making of the snowball. If the boy makes it for the fun of throwing it (perhaps at Susie Derkins), that fun (as a good to be attained) is also in some way the cause of the snowball.

The snowball depends in various ways on all four causes in order to come into being and continue to exist. Without the efficient and final causes (the boy who is looking for fun), it would not come to be. Without the material and formal causes (the snow with its particular shape), it would not continue to exist. (If the snow melts or gets squashed, the ball will cease to be.) To Aquinas, such dependency is the hallmark of causality: "Those things are called causes upon which things depend for their existence or their coming to be." Causality is an analogous notion that can be employed in a number of ways. The material stuff of the universe is a cause, but so are ideas in the mind of God. The sculptor is the cause of a statue, but so is the statue's form or shape and the purpose or goal that motivates the artist. A cause is always that upon which something depends for its being or becoming, but the modes of dependency vary greatly depending on the kinds of causes involved.


It may be helpful to give a brief description of the four causes since they are often misunderstood. Basically, they explain two things: why something is what it is and why it can cease to be what it is and become something else.

Material and Formal Causality

To understand material and formal causality, we must begin with the reality of change in the natural world. Any change always involves two principles: something that stays the same and something new. We do not say that one thing has become another unless some aspect of the first remains in the second. If I merely substitute one pen for another as I am writing, for instance, I do not say the first pen has become the second, since nothing of the first is present in the second. Nor do I generally say my pen is changing as it simply sits on my desk, since there is nothing new about it (no new place, size, weight, color, etc.). Any change requires both continuity and novelty.

Aristotle recognizes two fundamental kinds of change in the natural world. In one, usually called "accidental change," a substance or thing is modified incidentally while remaining the same basic kind of thing (as a log may become part of a cabin, while still remaining a log). In the other, called "substantial change," the substance or thing itself becomes a different kind of thing (as a dog ceases to be a dog when it dies). The principle of continuity in this kind of change cannot be a substance since it is the substance itself that is changing. The substance is precisely what does not endure through the change. Nor can the principle of newness be some mere, incidental factor (such as the rearrangement of more basic substances, analogous to the rearrangement of the logs when they become a cabin) since it is not mere, incidental novelty that needs to be explained, but substantial newness—a new substance, a new being. The principle of continuity is not a substance, but the mere "possibility" of being a substance. Nor is the principle of newness a substance. It is not a "thing" or a "what." It is rather "that by which" a thing is the sort of thing that it is.

In Aristotelian philosophy, the principle of possibility is commonly called "primary matter" and the principle of newness is known as "substantial form." To avoid confusion with other meanings of "matter," I will here refer to "primary matter" simply as "possibility-of-being." Each changeable substance is composed of two principles: possibility-of-being (which explains why it can cease to be what it is and become something else) and substantial form (which explains why that "possibility-of-being" is currently actualized as this particular kind of substance). Neither of these principles is a mere idea or abstraction. Each is a real, physical principle—a real aspect of the physis, or nature, of a particular material entity.

Primary Matter Broadly speaking, the material cause is the stuff out of which something is made. Marble, for instance, is the material cause of a marble statue. The material cause explains why a thing, presently existing in one way, can cease to be what it is and become something else. The marble in the statue, for instance, has the potency or "potentiality" to become a heap of marble dust. Since it has this potency, the change is possible. Existing as a statue, the marble does not have (lacks) the form of a pile of marble dust. It does, however, have the possibility or potentiality to possess that form. This possibility or potentiality is the mark of the material cause. In this example, the principle of possibility is a particular substance—the marble that acquires the new shape. The marble is a thing which, while remaining that thing, is capable of incidental modification in shape, size, and so forth.

On a deeper level, the principle of potentiality explains not just why a particular substance may acquire or lose some incidental feature (such as shape), but why it may cease to be that substance altogether and become something else. When a dog dies, for instance, it ceases to be the one organically unified substance we call "dog" and becomes something else—a carcass. Although we can name the dead dog with the single term "carcass," we realize that it is no longer really one thing, but a collection of independent substances gradually breaking down into still more basic substances or elements. While marble remains marble when a statue is broken or pulverized, the dog does not remain a dog when it becomes a carcass. Here the principle of possibility is not merely the potentiality of a substance to be differently shaped or structured, but the potentiality of one substance to become an entirely different kind of substance. More simply stated, it is the sheer possibility of being a substance at all. This possibility is not itself some thing; it is the mere possibility of being a thing. Aristotle called this most basic principle of possibility "primary matter" (prote hule). This sheer "possibility of being something" cannot exist apart from one form or another. It will always exist as some particular thing. As such, it is a real constituent principle of that thing. Considered in itself, however, it is not an existing "thing" but the mere possibility of being. It is, for instance, the possibility present in the dog to exist as something other than a dog.

Primary matter is a notoriously difficult principle to conceptualize, mostly because "there's no there there." Our minds are geared toward knowing what is actual: the existing dog, for example, and the actual principle (substantial form) by which it is a dog. We recognize potentiality only in view of actuality. If we admit the reality of substantial change, we see that there must be a "real" principle of "mere" possibility-of-being (primary matter) that persists through such a change. We cannot directly know that principle, and that principle can never exist by itself. Aristotle is able to give only an evocative description of it: "As the bronze is to the statue, or the wood to the bed, or the matter and the formless before receiving form to any thing which has form, so is the underlying nature to substance, i.e., the 'this' or existent." 15 Aristotle can define primary matter only in terms of the substantial change in which it is recognized: "My definition of matter is just this—the primary substratum of each thing, from which it comes to be without qualification, and which persists in the result."

Commenting on Aristotle's definition, Aquinas tries to explain why "the ancient philosophers" (the Presocratics) did not discover the principle of substantial form. They thought that one of the "sensible bodies" (such as air or water) must be the most fundamental stuff of the natural world. They did not see that these bodies themselves, since they undergo substantial change, must in turn be composed of the more primary principles of substantial form and primary matter which are "perceptible only indirectly" through an analysis of substantial change.

Substantial Form It is important to be clear from the outset on the kind of causality that substantial form exercises. Empirical science tends to deal with efficient causes—forces or agents that produce change. Substantial form does not exercise its causality in that way. It acts, not as an efficient cause, but as a formal cause in determining possibility-of-being to exist as one kind of substance or another.

An example of accidental change may be helpful here. In making the Pietà, Michelangelo begins with a block of marble and gradually carves it into the statue. The marble (the material cause) initially has the possibility of becoming a statue and actually becomes the statue when it attains a certain shape (the formal cause). The artist is the efficient cause, while the artist's goal is the final cause. The artist hacks and whittles until the new shape is realized and so causes the statue. For all his chipping and chiseling, however, the marble will not be the statue until it possesses the intended shape. If the shape is never attained, the statue will never come into being. In some way, therefore, it is the shape itself that makes the marble to be a statue. The shape does not do this by pushing, pulling, or exerting any kind of force. It does not act as an efficient cause, but rather as a formal cause. A formal cause exercises its causality by making something to be the kind of thing it is. In this example we are dealing with an accidental, formal cause—a particular shape. The shape is the formal cause that makes the marble to be that statue. The shape is "that by which" the marble is a statue.

In an analogous way in substantial change, substantial form is "that by which" primary matter or possibility-of-being exists as a particular kind of substance. There are, however, important differences between substantial and accidental form. The accidental form merely causes an existing substance to exist "in a certain way" (e.g., "with a certain shape"). The substantial form makes the substance to be a substance, as Aquinas explains: "The substantial form differs from the accidental form in this, that the accidental form does not make a thing to be 'simply' [simpliciter], but to be 'such' [secundum quid], as heat does not make a thing to be simply, but only to be hot. Therefore by the coming of the accidental form a thing is not said to be made or generated simply, but to be made such, or to be in some particular condition; and in like manner, when an accidental form is removed, a thing is said to be corrupted, not simply, but relatively. Now the substantial form gives being simply; therefore by its coming a thing is said to be generated simply; and by its removal to be corrupted simply."

Although the accidental form makes a whole thing to be what it is, it does not cause the parts of the thing to be what they are. When logs are joined into a cabin, for instance, the accidental form (the structure of the cabin) causes the whole to be a cabin, but it does not cause the parts to be logs. They remain logs as the cabin is built and are simply given a new structure or arrangement. The new structure (accidental form) accounts for the fact that they are now a cabin (and not a table or something else). It accounts for the whole structure of the cabin, but not for the individual logs that compose it. Simply put, it explains why the logs are now a cabin, but it does not explain why they are logs.

The substantial form, however, explains the being of the whole and of the part. For the parts of a substantial whole are the same kind of thing as the whole itself, in virtue of the one substantial form by which the thing is what it is. In a human being, for instance, a hand is not a foot, but each is human in virtue of the one substantial form that makes the whole being to be human (so long as each remains an integral part of a living human being). As Aquinas explains: "Now the substantial form perfects not only the whole, but each part of the whole. For since a whole consists of parts, a form of the whole which does not give existence to each of the parts of the body, is a form consisting in composition and order, such as the form of a house; and such a form is accidental. But the soul is a substantial form; and therefore it must be the form and the act, not only of the whole, but also of each part."


Excerpted from Unlocking Divine Action by Michael J. Dodds Copyright © 2012 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Causality in Aquinas....................11
2. Causality Locked and Unlocked in Empirical Science....................45
3. Locking Divine Action in Modern Science....................105
4. Unlocking Divine Action through the New Theories of Contemporary Science....................119
5. Unlocking Divine Action through the New Causality of Contemporary Science....................160
6. Divine Action and the Causality of Creatures....................205
7. Providence, Prayer, and Miracles....................229
Index of Names....................303
Index of Subjects....................309

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