Evolution, Final Causality, and a Creator

Evolution, Final Causality, and a Creator


The order of learning as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, is that we first sense the created world and because of the understanding we form of it come to know of the truth of its Creator. It is possible, though, to focus on the part and lose the whole, and this myopia has resulted in the current secular understanding of evolution, commonly called Darwinism, which has become one such reductionist belief of a great majority of modern man. Etienne Gilson finds this problematic and has explained that “[t]he pure mechanist in biology is a man whose entire activity has as its end the discovery of the ‘how’ of the vital operations in plants and animals. Looking for nothing else, he sees nothing else, and since he cannot integrate other things in his research, he denies their existence.”[1] Most discussions of evolution, in fact, end up centering on the question of chance, and, once established, it seems permissible for its adherents to do away with not only final causality (already a fatality to the reductionism already mentioned), but also the existence of God.

Our crafting a correct theory of evolution might enable us to come to a greater knowledge of the world around us and to an initial understanding of at least the existence of its necessary cause.

What is Evolution?

Catholics, although not obligated, are certainly encouraged to accept some form of evolution as the most coherent, scientifically verified, and likely material theory for the current state of species. “First, evolution, in its broadest sense, states that the world ‘began’ and gradually more and more complex substances developed.”[2] None other than Pope John Paul II said as much in his Letter on Evolution.[3] The point to be made here, before investigating some of the problems with erroneous theories of evolution, is that faith and reason are not opposed, and the Catholic Church itself has no opposition to such a theory, correctly understood.

We run into philosophical problems when the totality of the actual beings, these new forms, is reduced to a mere sum of the material parts involved. “In philosophical terms, different actual beings (substances with new forms) appear as time progresses.”[4] This reductionism is a constant temptation for scientists, whose observations are of the merely empirical, the measurable. If we say that a book is paper with ink marking bound together by covers, we are correct in as much as we say, but we err when we decide that a book is only those things.

We may ask the question here of the possibility of a million monkeys typing on a million computers for a million years and the question of their achieving “Hamlet.” The truth is, that an infinite amount of monkeys typing for an infinite amount of years could not generate the first sentence of Hamlet, unless we say that “Hamlet” is merely the arrangement of ink on paper. But Hamlet is an idea, and conveys concepts, abstracted thoughts, and many other things than require an intellect to recognize. Perhaps a single monkey could, in 5 minutes, type out the image of words to the first page of Hamlet, but it would not be “Hamlet” without the intellect recognizing it as such. The ink and the paper are there, to be sure, but much more than the ink and the paper.

Reductionism of this type can even take place in those who believe in the existence of a reality beyond the physical. Much of the error of modern reductionist science can be linked back to the views of such a believer as Descartes, who separated the human soul from the body in almost a complete way. Once this occurred, there seemed to be no way to put the two back together. The human body has now become the machine through which a human soul merely operates.

Animals, not having an intellectual soul, therefore become nothing more than their bodies, which are merely matter. Gilson makes the excellent observation “that primitives take a watch for an animal, but only the genius of Descartes has been able to take animals for watches.”[5] It is one thing for us to recognize our tendency to see a biological type of teleology of the kind with an intellectually known purpose “in” an inanimate object. But it is equally erroneous to reduce everything to the material as a correction.[6]

A Note on Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer

Darwin preferred his doctrine to be taught under the understanding of epigenesis, where successive acquisition and formation of new parts occurs, rather than a strict evolution, which would posit the completed form in the seed that merely develops to its end.  “[True evolution is] the notion of all those who wish to make absolutely certain that the divine act of creation having once taken place, nothing new is added to the created nature.”[7]  Herbert Spencer should probably be credited with coining evolution in the modern scientific sense. He certainly made an effort to defend the proposition that it was he and not Darwin who came up with it, but history seems to have had its unchangeable victory in forever linking Darwin with the foundation of evolution. “Not only is it that Darwin did not teach evolution, but Spencer does not believe in natural selection.”[8] Spencer would be much closer to a Lamarkian (see the works of Chevalier de Lamarck, 1744-1829) than a Darwinian, as we understand the terms.

We need to emphasis the point that Darwin did not intend his thought to be tied with that of evolution. “At the time when Darwin elaborated his own doctrine of the origin of species, the word ‘evolution’ was already in use to signify something completely different.”[9] ‘Evolution,’ from the Latin verb evolver, is an old philosophical notion of the of the Stoics. The word evolution, indeed, cannot be found in Darwin’s Origin of Species until the 6th edition. It seems to have been placed there, not because it was fundamental to his own thought, but because of the intellectual atmosphere of the time.

In place of evolution, Darwin posited a quite different theory. “The authentic Darwinian principle is not that of evolution; it is that of the principle of selection.”[10] This is an important point, because among the majority of laymen, and likely among many scientists, these two theories are erroneously seen as synonymous. For our purposes here, however, we note this point and move on to theories involving chance and then the notion of final causality. I wish to simply affirm, with Gilson, that “the great discovery which was popularly attributed to Darwin was not the evolutionism of Spencer, but his own doctrine of natural selection under the Spencerian name of evolution.”[11]

Chance: An Explanation?

We see that, although he denies it several times,[12] the underlying and strong position a modern biologist such as Dawkins gives to the “explanation” of chance. Chance has been touted as the explanation for much in Darwinian theories of evolution. But an explanation should be a cause, for we have real knowledge when we have knowledge through causes.[13] Is chance, then, a cause?

Aristotle lists four causes, and these are the formal, the material, the efficient, and the final causes. Material and efficient causes play an obviously important role in the empirical sciences. However, it seems that whatever lies beyond these two causes is lumped into the “cause of chance” and left at that. If Aristotle is correct, however, chance is only virtually a cause. Chance is sometimes concurrent with the four causes; therefore, chance is a cause only by virtue of concurrence. There are certainly other possible explanations of the concurrence of events, and they should not be written off outright without justification.

Let us take the example of a chance meeting of two old friends. Bob and Sam meet each other, by chance, in the market. But chance is not a real cause of their meeting. Bob went to purchase a product at the market, and Sam went to file a complaint with the manager at the market. Since they did these at the same time, without knowledge of each others’ intentions, we say they met by chance. But all we are really saying is that the cause of the concurrence of these events is outside the intentions of the individuals. Chance, then, is not an explanation, but merely states the lack of a known cause for the concurrence of the two old friends being in the market at the same time.

Perhaps Sally, a friend of both, was able to arrange this meeting, apart from the knowledge of both Sam and Bob, for she did the favor of reuniting old friends. We may imagine other causes that were intentional as well. The point, for us, is that, for Bob and Sam, as well as any other party unaware of Sally’s intention, the meeting of Sam and Bob in the market would appear as chance. This is because they lack the explanation of their concurrent appearances in the market.

Chance, then, is no true explanation at all. It is more of a placeholder. Chance is the part of the puzzle where we say “here we lack knowledge of the cause.” This is fine, as far as it goes. But when we remove the placeholder and name “placeholder” as “cause,” we have decided that to simply state our ignorance is to state some knowledge. This is as far from the true goal of science as we could get. Materialist atheists tend to charge the theist with worshipping gaps, but the truth is, the theist recognizes the gaps in our explanation and tries to offer a real explanation rather than to push that gap as that explanation.

Final Causality and Teleology

Richard Dawkins makes an attempt to refute Thomas Aquinas’ fifth way, that is, the argument from design, which we can take as one instance of a teleological argument. He writes that “[t]he argument from design is the only one still in regular use today.”[14] This itself is erroneous, but Dawkins has already failed to give a real argument against the first four of Aquinas’ proofs, and so this statement is an instance of rhetoric designed to keep his reader from returning and investigating his “refutation” of them. He continues, stating how “[t]he young Darwin was impressed by it [a version of this argument by William Paley] but…the mature Dawkins blew it out of the water.”[15] In this section, Dawkins argument amounts to this: “Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing we know looks designed unless it is designed.” His argument here is that, because Darwin was right, Darwin was right. The argument is both circular (and thus fallacious) and is an argument from authority (the weakest kind of argument).He does promise to return to the argument from design in a later chapter, but never really returns to a refutation of the teleological argument as presented by Aquinas. This is, after all, typical of Dawkins and his rhetorical rather systematically reasoned style. Other poor refutations given by Dawkins do not concern us for our purposes here.

Certainly, a biologist, a physicist, a chemist, etc., may rightly reject a teleology where rocks move toward a massive object, such as the earth’s surface, with an intellectually known purpose. But to refute teleology in this way is to refute a straw man, rather intentionally or through ignorance. “Much of the difficulty with teleology in nature arises from conceiving all final causality as intentional or cognitive and not sufficiently differentiating the cognitive from the terminative and the perfective.”[16] Gilson is at pains to remind us throughout his book that, as Aristotle so often stated, art imitates nature, and not the reverse. “Matter, form, and the end are real constituents of being, but they exist only in it and by it. This is what distinguishes the teleology of nature from that of art. The artist is external to his work…The end of living nature is, on the contrary, consubstantial with it.”[17]

Gilson then gives one of the finest examples to clear up our confusion on the “location” of this teleology in nature. “Whatever may be the transcendent origin of it, the teleology of the organism is in it as, once let fly by the archer, that of the arrow which flies to the target without knowing it, is in the arrow.”[18] It may be that Aristotle tending to “biologize” all of nature. He posited intelligences in the celestial matter, and professed that matter to be of a different type than earthly (mundane) matter. His statements that heavy things tend toward a resting place and that fire tends upwards could be taken as if these objects had an intellectual disposition to do so. But to misunderstand the exact “place” of the teleology and to remove it completely are two different things. We cannot, as the saying goes, “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Final Causality and the Question of God

One of the principles of metaphysics, in fact, of all thought, is the principle of sufficient reason. “Every being has the sufficient reason for its existence (i.e., the adequate ground or basis in existence for its intelligibility) either in itself or in another.”[19] Any being that does not provide the explanation from within itself of itself, must have an explanation outside of itself. A television exists, but we easily see that the fact of its existence and the reason for its existence are not the same thing. While it may take a moment’s reflection to see that the same thing applies to a natural item like a rock, it should be obvious that the fact of the rock is not the cause or reason for the rock’s being where it is, when it is, and lastly, “that” it is.

We may be tempted here to move directly from our topic of evolution and final causality to an attempt at a proof of the existence of God (and such an attempt would be completely valid). However, we need not take that leap here. Instead, we will look simply at final causality, at least for the moment.

Let us take the example, again, of the arrow that flies “intentionally” towards its target. We have no problem stating that this intention is not in the arrow as a cognitive intention. Nevertheless, we do not reduce to chance, at the moment the arrow leaves the archer’s bow, the question of whether the arrow will strike its target accurately or not. To do so would be to admit living in a world of utter chaos.[20] We cannot see this intention in the arrow, but in some way, it is there. To explain why the arrow strikes the target, we give a reason, and chance is not an explanation (unless we agree that all world class archers are simply those who have, by chance, hit more targets than the rest of us).

The problem is, as we said, that we do not “see” “where” this cause is. But we cannot simply deny its existence, any more than a man, now blind, denies there is anything out there that can be seen. It is merely that this cause, unlike, for example, the material, is not of the class that we can empirically test.

At this point, we can admit final causes without going so far as to admitting the existence of God (although following this through, I believe, will ultimately lead us to this conclusion).

Naturalism would admit that there are indeed final causes, but that these final causes are built into the totality of the universe. The sum total, therefore, contains all that is necessary within it to explain the occurrences of all within it. The tree provides the oxygen and the mammal provides back the carbon dioxide, the system, as a whole, self-explanatory. Theistic naturalism would go a step further and say that an intelligent being started this whole process, but, like a wind-up toy, built it and let it go. This is, perhaps, better called deism.

We can now approach the question of God in a scientific way alongside the metaphysical way. We see leaps in nature that simply are not explainable by theories such as naturalism. Perhaps naturalism can explain, through built-in potentialities in atoms, the possibilities of molecules, and through them, the possibilities of various reactions and conglomerations of larger objects, etc. But when we make qualitative jumps in being, such as from non-living to living beings, living beings (plants) to sensing beings (animals) and sensing life to intellectual creatures (man), we must explain this new “being” (remember the principle of sufficient reason).

While some solutions at this point try not to require the existence of a creator beyond the deist god who creates and abandons, by again trying to posit that all this potentiality is latent within the universe as a complete system, it seems not only to be a metaphysical issue, but one that requires the scientist to simply state facts rather than give explanations. Emergentism is one such “theory.” Emergentism states that it is a “law of nature” that higher beings emerge from lower beings. However, this is merely the stating of a fact, not the providing of an explanation. Stating that something is a law is simply a tautological “explanation” at best. The scientist must explain why it is a law of nature, or he has done nothing to advance our knowledge of the world.

Where Bertrand Russell had to, in debating the existence of a first cause, finally make the statement that “the universe just ‘is’ and we start from there, the scientist that denies a final cause outside the universe must make the “just is” statement of Russell each time a qualitative jump (mentioned above) in being is made.

We offer here, for reflection, one possible solution. If we understand creation in the Thomistic sense, we know that the universe, including its progress through time, is all one single act of a Creator. Therefore, viewed in time (as we must view it, at least empirically), creation of the material world is an ongoing process. In other words, the world, for us, may appear to have periods of interference from “outside” by the Creator, but to God, all things are “now.” The world is not changing; it simply “is.”

Empirically, we can only study our world as one that changes, that has movement. But recognizing that our point of view only gives us one dimension of that reality, we should not count out that there are other ways to study reality. For many empirical scientists, who today have a great hammer, every problem is viewed as a nail.

This is certainly not the only possible explanation. It does, however, fit the facts. It seems to be philosophically sound. It gives a real explanation to the empirical data of science. By “real,” we simply mean that it offers, in scientific terms, at least a theory. Rather than chance, which is no true cause at all, it provides an actual cause to the evolving world around us.


Many scientists hope to find a supertheory, or a “theory of everything.” However, if they do so by only seeking to explain everything through efficient and material causes, it is not only that we will be waiting a very long time for them to achieve this; it is an impossibility. Just because one posits a “great many box cars” it does not constitute the sudden appearance of a locomotive. In other words, multiplying the lack of an explanation by a “very long time” is multiplication by zero, producing a product of zero. It is their reductionism that will always be to blame. Our reductionist empirical scientist in this case is a typical Horatio. And “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”[21]

Etienne Gilson provides some wisdom here once more. “To hold final causality to be beyond science is one thing; to put it completely beyond nature is something completely different…he who loses himself in the contemplation of the form opens himself to the possibility of allowing many a secret to remain hidden in unexplored nature. But it is possible to take account of one without excluding the other, and that is all that we wish to point out…In brief, if there is in nature at least an apparently colossal proportion of finality, by what right do we not take it into account in an objective description of reality?”[22]The empirical scientist is free and should feel free to seek the efficient and material causes of the world around us. That is his role, and it is a worthwhile profession. But to overstep those bounds and claim that those two causes are all that is needed to explain everything would be tantamount to praising “spell check” to the point where the content of the paper matters not as long as the particular words are spelled correctly. Word processors have provided us great tools, but they still need an outside source to provide the direction, the teleology, the purpose of what is written. A million monkeys cannot write Hamlet, and a million years cannot write life into inorganic material.

We will, in other words, never understand the big picture of reality by chopping off its most important parts and trying to explain the whole by the little we let remain.



Appendix – Excerpts from Magisterium Is Concerned with Question of Evolution For It Involves Conception of Man by Pope John Paul II in a Message to Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1996

“Taking into account the state of scientific research at the time as well as of the requirements of theology, the Encyclical Humani generis considered the doctrine of “evolutionism” a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation and in-depth study equal to that of the opposing hypothesis. Pius XII added two methodological conditions: that this opinion should not be adopted as though it were a certain, proven doctrine and as though one could totally prescind from Revelation with regard to the questions it raises. He also spelled out the condition on which this opinion would be compatible with the Christian faith…

Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical, fresh knowledge has led to the recognition that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory…

And, to tell the truth, rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations. What is to be decided here is the true role of philosophy and, beyond it, of theology…

Theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.

With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry?


Clarke, W. Norris, S.J. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York, New York: First Mariner Books, 2006.

Gilson, Etienne. From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009.

Jaki, Stanley L. The Savior of Science. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, July 2000.

Rizzi, Anthony. The Science Before Science. Baton Rouge, LA: IAP Press, 2004.

Wallace, William A. The Elements of Philosophy: A Compendium for Philosophers and Theologians. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1977.

Wallace, William A. The Modeling of Nature. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

[1] Gilson, Etienne. From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution.(San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009) 14

[2] Rizzi, Anthony. The Science Before Science. (Baton Rouge, LA: IAP Press, 2004) 249

[3] I quote at length from this letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, dated October 22, 1996, in an appendix to this paper.

[4] Rizzi, 249

[5] Gilson, 145

[6] See below, under Final Causality and Teleology

[7] Gilson, 59

[8] Gilson, 76

[9] Gilson, 59

[10] Gilson, 77

[11] Gilson, 77

[12] See Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.(New York, New York: First Mariner Books, 2006) 139, 168, etc

[13] “Scientific knowledge is judgement about things that are universal and necessary, and the conclusions of demonstration, and all scientific knowledge, follow from first principles (for scientific knowledge involves apprehension of a rational ground).” Aristotle, EN vi 6

[14] Dawkins, 103

[15] Ibid, 103

[16] Wallace, William A. The Modeling of Nature (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996) 17

[17] Gilson, 148

[18] Ibid, 148

[19] Clarke, 21

[20] I will not here address the various issues of occasionalism, Hume’s denial of causes, problems of quantum theory, etc., even though they could all bring up valid points, alas refutable ones.

[21] Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.166-7)

[22] Gilson, 31-32, adapted


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