Contingent is What You Will

Bob Drury - Contingency


What do an evolutionary biologist, the International Theological Commission and St. Thomas Aquinas have in common? They use words like contingent and contingency, but with disparate meanings. Evolutionary biologist, Kenneth Miller, and the Commission use these words with one meaning, St. Thomas with another.

Kenneth Miller believes in continuing material creation and acknowledges it (The Providence Journal, July 10. 2005). The Commission, as cited by Miller, believes in the possibility of continuing material creation without acknowledging it as such, but identifying the possibility as a scientific question (Communion and Stewardship,§ 69). In contrast to Miller, most Christians believe that material creation ceased with the creation of man. St. Thomas, although cited by the Commission in apparent support of what Miller identifies as continuing creation, discusses a completely different topic, namely acts of human free will as contingent acts in the foreknowledge of God.

Aristotelian philosophy, including its modern form of Thomism, is based on substantial change in material things. It rejects continuing material creation. In accord with the principle of sufficient reason, all material changes are explained by the natures of material things. This includes changes in substance and changes in properties. In Aristotelian philosophy, every material thing in its nature is a composite of two principles. One is intelligible, the substantial form, which can change. The other is a principle of individuation, or prime matter, which remains the same during change.

This does not mean that minor forms cannot persist through substantial change. After an animal ingests water, the water may be vitally the animal’s body as much as any hydrated muscle or organ is the animal’s body. Although water retains much of its properties within the animal body, it is integral to the substance, which is the animal. Water, before the animal drinks it, is a substance. After it is assimilated by the animal it may retain its properties but may be substantially the animal. Hydrogen and oxygen undergoing substantial change into water lose many of their properties, while some of their properties persist at the atomic level.

What this means is that matter is neither created nor destroyed. What this means is that the result of substantial change has its full natural explanation in the substances involved.

We know the natures of material things intellectually because the human mind has the power to abstract them from sense knowledge. In knowing what things are, we know what they can become. That of course, is through observation. However, if material things were being created rather than changing, we would have no clue as to what was going on.

Revelation from God must be in accord with what is known by human reason alone. It is in accord with the scope and with the possibility of human knowledge that the Judeo-Christian revelation indicates that material creation ceased with the creation of man. If we lived in a world in which material creation were commonplace, we would be completely bewildered.

Miller validly cites the Commission as in accord with his belief that material creation is continuing in the form of random change. The Commission claims that the rationale of Divine providence includes material change as either of necessity or of contingency. According to the Commission, the contingent is random change. However, change as materially random is humanly incomprehensible. It is beyond the scope of science. Miller is fully justified in his citation of the Commission. However, in its citation of St. Thomas (, article 4), the Commission misinterprets St. Thomas’ use of the word, contingent. St. Thomas is discussing the compatibility of God’s foreknowledge and human free will. While most material events are of necessity due to the intelligible natures of things, which man can know, some material events are contingent upon human free will. The Commission interprets St. Thomas as endorsing ‘truly contingent natural processes’, which in context can only mean scientifically inexplicable, material chance.

The various meanings of randomness and probability deserve an essay in themselves. There are two meanings directly relevant here. One is mathematical randomness and its corollary, mathematical probability or mathematical chance. The other is scientifically inexplicable, material randomness and its corollary, material probability or material chance.

Mathematical probability is the fractional concentration of an element in a logical set. Randomness refers to the formation of a new logical set based solely on the fractional concentrations of a source set. There is no material rationale involved in the formation of the new logical set. In this mathematics, the elements are treated solely from the perspective of counting. Their IDs are purely nominal. This cannot be true of material things.

Material things have properties other than their numerical unity, which renders them countable. The mathematics of probability can only be applied to material things analogically. In such an analogy, the material rationale of the formation of a new set is ignored. In such analogies, human ignorance of the material rationale is equated with mathematical, logical randomness. Outside of mathematics, to postulate inexplicable randomness and probability is to deny the possibility of human knowledge and specifically scientific knowledge. Such material randomness denies the existence of scientific, i.e. material factors. In contrast, the analogical application of the concept of mathematical randomness to material observations merely suspends knowledge of the scientific factors at the level at which randomness is posited.

There can be no objective criteria for distinguishing a materially random event from a materially creative event. Both are scientifically intractable mysteries. The distinction depends upon whether one believes in the one or the other. Belief in the occurrence of materially random events throughout human experience, continuing through the present and into the future, renders science and all learning impossible. It is belief in superstition. Belief in the occurrence of materially creative events throughout human experience, continuing through the present and into the future, renders science and all learning impossible. It is inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian revelation.

In the span of human experience, Aristotelian philosophy denies both material creation and material annihilation via substantial change. However, it accommodates the transition from inanimate lower forms to a higher level of being via reproduction and assimilation by animate substantial forms already in existence. It accommodates the reverse through death and decay.

To recognize material reality as fundamentally rational, does not mean that it is wholly within the scope of human rational knowledge. The adage is true: The more one knows, the more he realizes how little he knows. Any uncertainty is in the human mind, not in material reality. STOP. Human uncertainty is often referred to as probability, but with a totally different meaning of the word, probability, from its meaning in mathematics. That is another topic for another essay.

Not all material acts are determinate. Materially contingent acts are acts proceeding from the human will. As such they are not within the scope of science.

Miller’s belief, identifying materially random events as materially creative events is self-consistent. They are extrinsically indistinguishable from each other as scientifically intractable mysteries.

To believe in continuing material creation is not to render Darwinian evolution compatible with the Catholic faith as Miller contends and the Commission implicitly condones. Continuing material creation and its indistinguishable counterpart, materially random mutation, render Darwinian evolution unscientific and science impossible. It is only mathematically random mutation, which could render Darwinian evolution compatible with science.

Of course, the application of the mathematics of randomness and probability to material reality requires suspension of the knowledge of the scientific, i.e. the material, factors which determine results at the level at which randomness is posited. For example, the roll of dice can be viewed as mathematically random and the result a probability, only by ignoring the mechanical factors of the roll, which produce the result determinately.

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