On the Integration of Substantial Change, Creation, and Evolution

creation, creator, creature, genesis

creation, creator, creature, genesis

Substantial change, creation, and evolution are commonly acknowledged to be topics in philosophy, theology, and science, respectively. The integration of theology with philosophy within human knowledge is clearly manifest in Catholic seminary education, which places the study of philosophy prior to the study of theology.

In contrast to philosophy and theology, which are primarily concerned with entities and being, science is concerned with the measurable properties of things, not with entities as such. Science is integrated as a subset of human knowledge through the philosophical recognition that reality is intelligible in all its details, including the discovery of mathematical relationships among the measurable properties of material reality, which is science.

It would seem that there is no need for further integration of any specific subset of science. Evolution, however, is the exception in its alleged relevance to the substantial change of entities and to the creation of entities. Fr. Michael Chaberek, in his recent book Aquinas and Evolution, notes a significant contrast between science and philosophy/theology: Copernicus wrote On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, with its focus on the properties, the revolutions, of existent things, specifically the motion of the planets with respect to the sun; Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, with its focus on the coming into being, the origin, of things which differ in their properties (p. 221).

What Is a Substance?

In philosophy (the perennial philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas), a substance is that which exists in itself, as an integral whole, in contrast to properties or accidents which exist in a substance. A mammal, as a living thing, is an excellent example of a substance, a unit that, in its existence, is not a part of anything else. The principle of unity is its substantial form. Substance, entity, and thing are synonyms in philosophy, although in common speech they may refer to a part rather than an integral whole at the level of existence.

Water is a substance, while its forms as vapor, liquid and solid are properties, which can change without any change in substance. In addition to changes in properties, we also observe changes in substance; i.e. substantial change. The most familiar of substantial changes is our own assimilation of food. Food may be a variety of organic substances. As mammals, we have the power to change what we eat into ourselves. The perennial philosophy identifies this as substantial change.

In substantial change, a prior substantial form is replaced by a new substantial form, while what persists throughout this change is matter. What is prior fully explains what is new. Substantial change is recognized as a transition from potency to act. Substantial change does not involve annihilation or creation.

Biological Evolution

Biological evolution proposes the common descent of living things, where present major differences are the result of the accumulation of minor differences in properties and where individuals with intermediate accumulation have died out.

The philosophical question arises: Do these major differences represent differences in substantial form? For example, if the modern pig and modern man have a common ancestor and arose through evolution, are pigs and men substantially different?

The contemporary evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has explicitly answered No. His implicit philosophical rationale is logically consistent with the perennial philosophy. (1) Change in the properties of an entity does not result in substantial change and (2) in biological reproduction, like begets like. His corresponding logical conclusions are: (1) Species are not distinguished by differences in substance and (2) They all have the same substantial form, living thing.

The cosmologist Sean Carroll, in his philosophy, takes this reductionism further. He denies the existence of substances at the level of human sensation. Reality consists solely of atoms obeying the laws of motion of physics. Implicitly, ordinary things (see this video at min. 2:15), such as insects, alive or dead, are not substances but superficial arrangements of atoms. Nothing at the level of human sensation is a substance, a reality in itself. Only atoms or elementary particles exist in themselves. The views of both Dawkins and Carroll with respect to entities are incompatible with the common judgment that pigs and men are substantially different from one another.

Although not referring explicitly to pigs and men, the contemporary evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller has implicitly answered Yes. By identifying Darwinian evolution as continuing creation, Miller implies that biological species, such as pigs and men, differ in substance. Continuing creation, however, is inconsistent with both philosophy and theology. Creation is a coming into existence of that which cannot be explained by already existing material forms.

A world of continuing creation would render impossible both scientific and philosophical human knowledge. Human knowledge depends upon the principle: material change, both accidental and substantial, is fully explicable in terms of what existed prior. In addition to being inconsistent with philosophy, continuing creation is also inconsistent with Judeo-Christian theology, in which material creation occurred in stages and ended with the creation of man.

Theistic evolution is another view. It differs from Dawkins’ view in that it recognizes species as differing in substance. Theistic evolution differs from Miller’s proposal of continuing creation by claiming that the process of continuing evolution produces new living species (substances), not by creation, but within the ordinary providence of God, albeit through the accumulation of changes in the properties of things.

Fr. Chaberek’ Criticism of Theistic Evolution

In Aquinas and Evolution, Fr. Chaberek rejects theistic evolution with three main objections.

  1. “… [T]heistic evolution … presupposes that the nature (or the substantial form) of a living being can be changed into a different nature by an accidental change. This, however, is impossible in Aquinas’s view: accidental change can lead to only accidental differences, whereas a change in nature requires a substantial change. That is why transformation of species, indeed by any physical process, is impossible. Evolutionary process (as any other physical process) may change the accidents of a living being, but it will never produce a new substantial form.” (p. 49)
  2. Material creation ceased with the creation of man: “And after the work of adornment was finished on the sixth day, no new species can be added to the completeness of the world. … The work of formation has been finished once and for all with the creation of man. Today we live in the fourth stage, the time of God’s providence and the history of salvation.” (p. 55)
  3. “Thomas is explicit enough to settle the question of whether man was made of a beast or of a dead matter of elements.” (pp. 136-7). This argument spans pages 141 to 146.

“This excludes hominization of an animal because animal life cannot be infused into a beast that already possesses animal life.” (p. 146)

Accommodating Evolution to Fr. Chaberek’s Criticism

In accord with Fr. Chaberek, the evolution of species cannot be a natural process and thus cannot, in keeping with revelation and philosophy, be a current process. This voids theistic evolution and Miller’s view. However, it would be apt to apply the word evolution to what would be a hypothetical observation spanning the temporal period of creation. As a staged process, creation could, and indeed has, left a few of its imprints discoverable through paleontology. Coal is an excellent example, formed millions of years ago from plant material. Another example is the fossil record of hominid and human remains from thousands of years ago.

Creation is a supernatural act. However, a hypothetical external observation of material creation in stages would appear superficially to be a solely natural process. Also, it should be noted that (1) creation and (2) the generation of variation as materially random are both scientifically intractable mysteries (for both, what is materially prior cannot explain the outcome). Thus, they would not differ from one another if subject to temporal surveillance. To such “surveillance” evolution (confined to the temporal span of creation), Fr. Chaberek’s first two objections would not apply. His third objection would.

Chaberek’s Third Objection

His argument is that creation is creation, not transformism. By his terminology, Fr. Chaberek prejudicially favors his conclusion that the first man was created from preexisting inanimate matter and not from preexisting brute matter, i.e. a body. His prejudice is evident in that he labels the former creation and the later transformism. Fr. Chaberek implies that creation from inanimate substances does not involve the transformation from one substantial form to another, but that creation from brute matter (i.e. transformism) does. He strengths this prejudice by claiming, “Living beings constitute substances in a much stronger sense than non-living beings, to the point that the latter should not even be called substances, but elements and compounds.” (p. 51) However, this is incompatible with the fact that matter cannot exist without substantial form.

Against Objection 3 (But Not Against Surveillance Evolution)

Considering creation in parallel to the nature of human life, it would seem to be more appropriate that the preexisting matter from which the first man was created should be at least from living matter, if not from brute matter. A green plant through assimilation can effect the substantial change of solely inorganic matter into its own substance. By contrast, humans and other animals cannot. Assimilation by an animal depends upon organic matter that at one time was, and often at the time of ingestion is the tissue of a plant or animal. It requires living substances, plants and animals, to predispose inanimate matter before it can be transformed into human substance by assimilation.

Consequently, there would be a parallel of creation and nature, if the creation of the first man was creation out of matter predisposed by an animal’s substantial form. It would be appropriate to label this creative transformism from brute. This parallel between creation and nature would dismiss Fr. Chaberek’s third objection to evolution as well as contravene his use of prejudicial terminology. In the creation of the first man, he uses “special transformism” (when he refers to creation from brute matter), but “special creation” (when he refers to creation from inanimate matter): “Special transformism accepts the formation of the human body from an animal whereas special creation speaks about the human body being immediately formed from the dust of the earth.” (p. 133)

Summary: An Integrated Perspective

  • Evolution as the accumulation of accidental changes cannot result in substantial change; i.e., species of different kinds. (Consonant with Dawkins and Chaberek)
  • Radical substantial differences between species, such as birds and mammals, must be the result of creation. (Consonant with Miller and Chaberek)
  • Material creation ceased with the creation of man. (Consonant with Genesis, Chaberek, and with physics in that matter, as mass and energy, is neither created nor destroyed)
  • The creation of man from matter predisposed by another animal form would be parallel to the dependence of human life on matter predisposed by plants and animals prior to its assimilation as food by man. (Consonant with Genesis and with “surveillance” biological evolution. Incompatible with Chaberek)
  • A simple surveillance record of material creation in temporal stages would be superficially indistinguishable from evolution by materially random mutation. Creation and material randomness are non-philosophical and non-scientific in that both identify material results as inexplicable by what was materially prior. Creation is a theological explanation. (Superficial consonance between Genesis and Darwinian Evolution)
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5 thoughts on “On the Integration of Substantial Change, Creation, and Evolution”

  1. From a Thomistic position,Prime matter has the potency to produce any of the forms of material reality that will come to into existence at any point in history. Prime matter only has to be properly disposed for such new realities to exist. From what we now know (thanks also to Mendel), for a new life form to appear, the DNA must undergo changes. Science does not know how these changes arise. The fossil records indicate that multiple changes inexplicably occur at times simultaneously in the DNA to produce totally new forms of life. According to Thomas, providence is the remote cause of any changes which come about in this world, including the coming to existence of a human soul. Thus, for a Thomist, there would seem no problem in stating that according to his own divine purposes at given points in time God brings about those changes in DNA that make it possible for a new being to arise from the pure potency of prime matter which never exists independently but always as a constituent part of some existing reality.

    1. But, how do you integrate this with revelation? You don’t mention what we may know of material creation from revelation, specifically its temporal span. As you note, material creation cannot be explained by what is materially prior to it. Consequently, would not philosophy and science be impossible, if material creation were contemporary to the human pursuit of knowledge?

    2. I dare say that Thomas would probably have expanded on his definitions and modes of change had he the benefit of today’s knowledge on changes in species to include differing manifestations of humans over the millennia. To what extent and how he would specifically account for these changes within the action of providence is debatable but he would not ignore the actions themselves.

    3. Aristotle and Thomas validly distinguished substantial change from non-substantial change. As a dichotomy, this distinction cannot be expanded. Yet, as brilliant as they were, the task to integrate present knowledge is ever yours, Chaberek’s and mine.
      One definition of philosophy is the determination of what must be so and what cannot be so, if what we experience of reality is to be possible. This implies that each individual’s philosophical knowledge must depend upon his own ordinary experience. Consequently, no one of old or contemporary has a fundamental advantage in philosophy.

  2. Pingback: SATVRDAY AFTERNOON EDITION – Big Pulpit

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