Sunday, August 3, 2014

John Deely on "Creationism" vs. "Evolution"

[506] This is among the most enduring, baffling, and empty of the controversies of all of history, to say nothing merely of modern times, whence it continues to rage around us long past its time.

In 1945, Antonin Sertillanges, an excellent philosopher—not a great one, but a very, very good mind—wrote an entire book, The Idea of Creation, on just this question. This book should have shown everyone once and for all that this celebrated controversy is a nominalism, empty air delivered in withering blasts. For "there is nothing to prevent us from seeing in evolution, instead of a substitute for creation", which it could hardly be anyway, "simply another perspective on the manner in which the creative fact is bound up with the facts of nature" (Sertillanges 1945: 128). But not everyone read Sertillanges, and, anyway, he wrote in French, a language most proponents of "creationism" don't know.

But the doctrinal language that he spoke was pure Thomas Aquinas, from whom Sertillanges took the idea for his book. In the time of Aquinas, it was believed that the Bible taught that the world had a beginning. Aristotle taught, quite explicitly to the contrary, that the world was eternal. This, indeed, was one of the several reasons why the medieval church authorities tried to chop of Aristotle's head as soon as it appeared in Latin, by condemning his work and forbidding that it be read.

Thomas Aquinas, who clearly read Aristotle and thought for himself besides (you would have expected that, as a saint, he would have paid a little more attention to the church authorities), commented on this controversy by pointing out that the question of God's creation of the world has no least connection with the question of when the world exists but a question of how the world exists. And any system of interacting finite beings, statically or dynamically conceived, can be shown to be possible only on the assumption of an infinite being who imparts to them at each moment, and sustains them at each moment in, actual existence. The idea of creation reduced to its essential content is not the idea of a beginning in time but of a dependency in being, a dependentia in esse.

This is what Sertillanges repeated to his modern contemporaries in 1945. Creation is purely and simply a question of does God act presupposing something besides Himself, or presupposing nothing at all? That is a metaphysical question, not a scientific one. Evolution, by contrast, is a scientific, not a metaphysical, question; and still less one that can be decided by religion.

[507] There are some matters that can be decided by neither philosophy nor religion, and the question of whether the world as a matter of fact changes over time in its basic structures and specific features is one of them. If you want to know how the world changes in its physical being over time you have to go out, gather the evidence capable of revealing this, and not refuse to look at that evidence. Aristotle can tell you that if the environment on which the earth depends does not change, then neither will the earth. But Aristotle cannot tell you whether the environment on which the earth depends changes or not. For that you have to look at that environment. To babble philosophy or to quote scripture contrary to what you find in the physical evidence is inane. Said rightly Sertillanges (1945: 142):
Whoever does not see that has not grasped the essential import of the notion of creation. He has restricted and anthropomorphized the notion beyond what is permissible. Once that has been pointed out, moreover, we are free to return calmly to the biblical conception of an initial creation after or beyond which is a divine repose. 
We henceforth know well that one can conceptualize this repose in any of three forms: as sanctioning the fixity of beings in their genus and species; as giving them over to their progressive unfolding through time; or, finally, as imparting to the latent psychism with which it has endowed them the responsibility for temporal creations more and more exuberant. 
One is free to choose, awaiting further evidence. But it is to be fervently hoped that after so much vain quarreling, we Christians will cease bringing forward unjustified censures respecting this doctrine of evolution, to which, under one form or another [Deely comments: Under the second on of the three forms, as it turns out], the future seems certain to belong.
The legitimate argument of the "creationists", therefore, is not against the idea of evolution but against those particular versions of evolutionary theory propounded by persons who so misunderstand the nature of the case and so confusedly grasp the ideas they propound as to think that it is enough to show that there has been an evolution to show that there is no God. Such was the actual case of the Soviet cosmonaut who went outside his space capsule and looked around, then equated the failure of his eyes to detect God with a proof that God does not exist.


Source: John Deely, Four Ages of Understanding (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 506–507.

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