Thomistic Naturalism

The third of John Damascene’s arguments for the existence of God:

[T]he very continuity of the creation, and its preservation and government, teach us that there does exist a Deity, who supports and maintains and preserves and ever provides for this universe. For how could opposite natures, such as fire and water, air and earth, have combined with each other so as to form one complete world, and continue to abide in indissoluble union, were there not some omnipotent power which bound them together and always is preserving them from dissolution?

De fide Orthodoxa I c. 3

Thomas not only knew this argument but probably had it memorized, but he neither gave it as a proof for God’s existence or even his governance. Why not? Likely because John assumes that some natural order does not reduce to natural causes, whereas Thomas believes all do. Call this Thomas’s Naturalism.

First, John sets out the argument through question and suggestion, which suggest he takes it as hypothetical, probable, or missing key premises. But there are no shortage of those who take John’s probable or hypothetical premise as axiomatic: the intrinsic tendencies of things tend to destroy and conflict other natural orders or, the natures of things have no tendency of themselves to some natural orders, like the order of the universe.

Now Thomas seems to suggest a sympathy with the premise in his argument for the divine government:

[I]n nature things happen always or nearly always for the best; which would not be the case unless some sort of providence directed nature towards good as an end; which is to govern. Wherefore the unfailing order we observe in things is a sign of their being governed; for instance, if we enter a well-ordered house we gather therefrom the intention of him that put it in order, as Tullius says (De Nat. Deorum ii), quoting Aristotle [Cleanthes].

ST 1. 103. 1

But the last argument he gives in the article clarifies exactly how he wants natural activity to be understood:

[T]hat which creatures receive from God is their nature, while that which natural things receive from man in addition to their nature is somewhat violent. Wherefore, as the violent necessity in the movement of the arrow shows the action of the archer, so the natural necessity of things shows the government of Divine Providence.

In other words, it belongs to human art precisely as human to impose an order on natures lacking a tendency to that order. Divine art makes natural order arise from natural causes acting for an end, so much so that if we posit natures whose operation is contrary (like water smothering fire) we need to also posit some more universal natural order or law in which these operations harmonize. This is the point of Aristotle’s response to the argument that rain cannot fall to water crops since it would just as soon rot crops in silos.

Again, Thomas’s position is a sort of Naturalism since he holds that every natural order reduces to natural causes. Where Thomas differs from contemporary Naturalism is that he denies that the first cause in the natural order is the first cause absolutely.

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