Aristotle, Aquinas & Emergence

I was asked to write an article relating the teaching of Aquinas to contemporary science for the journal Scientia et Fides. I decided to use and further develop the material contained in my doctoral dissertation. I expanded my reinterpretation of the classical notion of emergence, with its emphasis on the role of downward causation, in terms of the fourfold notion of causation in Aristotle and Aquinas, and the theory of divine action offered by the latter. The PDF version of the article is available HERE.

Abstract of the article:

One of the main challenges of the nonreductionist approach to complex structures and phenomena in philosophy of biology is its defense of the plausibility of the theory of emergence and downward causation. The tension between remaining faithful to the rules of physicalism and physical causal closure, while defending the novelty and distinctiveness of emergents from their basal constituents, makes the argumentation of many proponents of emergentism lacking in coherency and precision. In this article I aim at answering the suggestion of several thinkers to redefine emergence and downward causation in terms of the broader Aristotelian view of causation. In addition, I further develop this interdisciplinary conversation to include theological implications of emergentism, analyzed in reference to Aquinas’ understanding of divine action in terms of the same fourfold division of causes—bringing thus natural science, philosophy, and theology into creative and fruitful dialogue.

Keywords: emergence; downward causation; hylomorphism; teleology; Aristotle; Aquinas.


Thomism and Evolution

I’m sharing the good news. My article on the thomistic response to the theory of evolution – that I have been working on for a long time – has been published today in an online version of the coming issue of Theology and Science. you can find link to the article and a pdf of the final draft on my profile on ACADEMIA.EDU and RESEARCHGATE.NET.

The paper is significant for two reasons.

First, I’m bringing in it my discovery of a preliminary definition of natural selection in Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle’s Physics II, 8 (198b 29-32), that can be found in In Phys. II, lect. 12, par. 253.

Second, in the theological part of the paper I bring Aquinas’ Commentary on Sentences (In I Sent., dist. 44, I, 2, co.) where Thomas — in the context of divine action in the possible perfection of the universe — says explicitly about addition of new species (multae aliae species).

Thomistic Response to the Theory of Evolution: Aquinas on Natural Selection and the Perfection of the Universe


Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas assumes the reality of the evolution of species. Their systems of thought, however, remain open to the new data, offering an essential contribution to the ongoing debate between scientific, philosophical, and theological aspects of the theory of evolution. After discussing some key issues of substance metaphysics in its encounter with the theory of evolution (hylomorphism, transformism of species, teleology, chance, the principle of proportionate causation), I present a Thomistic response to its major hypotheses. Concerning the philosophy of Aquinas I trace what might be seen as a preliminary description of natural selection in his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. Turning toward theology, besides addressing the topics that were referred to in the past—such as: Aquinas’ reading of Genesis, his account of creation as dependence in being, secondary and instrumental causality, and univocal/equivocal predication of God—I bring into discussion Thomas’ concept of the perfection of the universe, which has been virtually unused in this context.

Key Words: Aristotle; Aquinas; Natural selection; Chance; Divine causality; Evolution; Hylomorphism; Perfection of the Universe; Teleology

Aristotle & Evolution

I want to share the news about my latest publication – an article on Aristotle and evolution published in the proceedings of the 1st Virtual international Conference on the Dialogue between Science and Theology organized by RCDST of Ovidius University of Constanta, Romania.

An Aristotelian Account of Evolution and the Contemporary Philosophy of Biology

The article is also available HERE

Proceedings of the conference



The anti-reductionist character of the recent philosophy of biology and the dynamic development of the science of emergent properties prove that the time is ripe to reintroduce the thought of Aristotle, the first advocate of a “top-down” approach in life-sciences, back into the science/philosophy debate. His philosophy of nature provides profound insights particularly in the context of the contemporary science of evolution, which is still struggling with the questions of form (species), teleology, and the role of chance in evolutionary processes. However, although Aristotle is referenced in the evolutionary debate, a thorough analysis of his theory of hylomorphism and the classical principle of causality which he proposes is still needed in this exchange. Such is the main concern of the first part of the present article which shows Aristotle’s metaphysics of substance as an open system, ready to incorporate new hypothesis of modern and contemporary science. The second part begins with the historical exploration of the trajectory from Darwin to Darwinism regarded as a metaphysical position. This exploration leads to an inquiry into the central topics of the present debate in the philosophy of evolutionary biology. It shows that Aristotle’s understanding of species, teleology, and chance – in the context of his fourfold notion of causality – has a considerable explanatory power which may enhance our understanding of the nature of evolutionary processes. This fact may inspire, in turn, a retrieval of the classical theology of divine action, based on Aristotelian metaphysics, in the science/theology dialogue. The aim of the present article is to prepare a philosophical ground for such project.

Natural Selection in Aristotle and Aquinas

confli3It is hard to find a balance when it comes to our attitude towards the science and academia in the Middle Ages. Opinions vary. We find those who simply regard this period in history as the dark age which only obscured and prevented the development of real science. Others acknowledge the importance of the origin of universities in France, Germany, Italy, and other European countries at that time. And yet, they remain skeptical about the methodology of Aristotelian scholasticism developed in Paris, and Platonic overtones predominant in the medieval science at Oxford. Still others emphasize the importance of the mathematical reasoning of Roger Backon and the origins of new empiricism developed at Paris (Albert the Great, O.P., Peter of Maricourt, and Theodoric of Freiburg, O.P.). They may had been far away from our modern understanding of mathematics and empirical method in science, but we would not be where we are with our scientific development if not their contribution.

aquinas-aristotleWhile pursuing my research on Aquinas’ understanding of causality I came across a passage in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics that blew my mind. Speaking of those who reject teleology (the claim that nature acts for an end) Aristotle refers to some thinkers who suggest that everything in nature happens out of necessity. It may look to us – they say – that things come to be for and end, while they are actually organized “spontaneously in a fitting way,” which helps them to survive, unlike those things or organisms that grew otherwise, which “perished and continue to perish.” (Physics II, 8 [198b 29-32])

This passage from Aristotle, which already looks like the first description of natural selection, was commented by Aquinas, whose definition is even closer to the one formulated by Darwin and modern evolutionary theory. Referring to the same group of thinkers who rejected teleology and argued for necessity of natural events Aquinas says that “they say that from the beginning of the formation of the world the four elements [earth, water, air, fire] were joined in the constitution of natural things, and thus the many and varied dispositions of natural things were produced. And in all these things only that which happened to be suitable for some utility, as if it were made for that utility, was preserved. For such things had a disposition which made them suitable for being preserved, not because of some agent intending an end, but because of that which is per se vain, i.e., by chance. On the other hand, whatever did not have such a disposition was destroyed, and is destroyed daily. Thus Empedocles said that in the beginning things which were part ox and part man were generated.” (In phisica II, lect. 8, no. 253)

ewolucjaThis quotation is striking. Naturally, it would be an unjustified simplification to infer from this passage that Aristotle and Aquinas either developed or accepted the theory of evolution. The empirical scientific data both in antiquity and in the Middle Ages would not support such a claim. On the other hand, however, they were both careful observers of changes and processes of nature, and developed metaphysics and theology (in the case of Aquinas) which can be supportive and serve as a background of evolutionism. This topic is the subject of my paper which is at present in the review of Theology and Science. I hope it will be accepted and published later this year.

Coming back to Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ descriptions of natural selection, we should notice that neither one of them says openly whether he finds the very core of the idea plausible. What seems to be clear, however, is the fact that that they both reject it as interpreted in terms of the necessity of chance (this term is defined nowadays as the “blind” or the “absolute” chance). They would rather argue that nature always acts for an end, which is natural and intrinsic to things and organisms. Those who support Aristotle’s philosophy of nature nowadays, emphasize that chance events at the bottom line of evolutionary processes happen in organisms which by definition strive to survive and produce offspring. Therefore, chance events have to be related to regularity and teleology present in nature.

Moreover, some of the leading evolutionary biologists in the 20th century (Dobzhansky and Ayala) say that mutations alone, if uncontrolled, would lead to the breakdown and extinction of life, rather than to adaptive evolution. They have to be “controlled” by natural selection, which, according to Ayala, is not only a purely negative mechanistic end-directed process that promotes the useful and gets rid of harmful mutants, increasing thus reproductive efficiency. It implies creativity and teleology, that is a production and maintenance of end-directed organs and processes. (See Dobzhansky, Genetics of the Evolutionary Process, 65; Ayala, “Teleological Explanations in Evolutionary Biology,” in Nature’s Purposes. Analyses of Function and Design in Biology, 35, 41.)

Levine_DarwinNow, it becomes obvious that this assertion brought by Ayala is a modern expression of the same idea, formulated in ancient philosophy by Aristotle and developed later on by Aquinas. It would be too much to say that the theory of natural selection goes back to Aristotle and Aquinas. But on the other hand, Darwin himself, a few months before his death in 1882, received from William Ogle a copy of his new translation of Aristotle’s Parts of Animals. In his response to Ogle, Darwin says: “You must let me thank you for the pleasure which the Introduction to the Aristotle book has given me. I have rarely read anything which has interested me more; though I have not read as yet more than a quarter of the book proper. From quotations which I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle’s merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere school-boys to old Aristotle.”

Darwin died soon after sending his letter to Ogle, and we don’t know if he read more of Aristotle. I’m pretty sure that if he had continued his research, he might have been surprised finding Aristotle’s reflection on natural selection. I think that it proves again that the old folks like Aristotle and Aquinas are not outdated and should not be ignored. My friend from Poland who is a biochemist sent me an information found on Wikipedia which says that: “In recent years, the cognitive neuroscientist Walter Freeman proposes that Thomism is the philosophical system explaining cognition that is most compatible with neurodynamics, [which he explains] in a 2008 article in the journal Mind and Matter entitled “Nonlinear Brain Dynamics and Intention According to Aquinas.””

Therefore, it is not an anachronism to claim that Aristotle’s philosophy and Thomism are relevant in the context of contemporary scientific, philosophical, and theological debates. Viva Aristotle! Viva Aquinas! 🙂