Aristotelian-Thomistic Contribution to the Contemporary Studies on Biological Life and Its Origin
In biology, nothing is clear, everything is too complicated, everything is a mess, and just when you think you understand something, you peel off a layer and find deeper complications beneath. Nature is anything but simple.Richard Preston
2. Properties of Life
- Holism. An organism is an individual entity that cannot be subdivided without losing its essential properties. An organism cannot remain alive if its parts are separated and no longer interact.
- Metabolism. An individual organism takes in material and energy from its local environment, and chemically transforms them. Seeds are dormant and so lack an active metabolism, but they can become alive if conditions reactivate their metabolism. For this reason, Gánti makes a four-part distinction between things that are alive, dormant, dead, or not the kind of thing that could ever be alive.
- Inherent stability. An organism maintains homeostatic internal processes while living in a changing environment. By changing and adapting to a dynamic external environment, an organism preserves its overall structure and organization. This involves detecting changes in the environment and making compensating internal changes, with the effect of preserving the overall internal organization.
- Active information-carrying systems. A living system must store information that is used in its development and functioning. Children inherit this information through reproduction, because the information can be copied. Mistakes in information transfer can “mutate” this information, and natural selection can sift through the resulting genetic variance.
- Flexible control. Processes in an organism are regulated and controlled so as to promote the organism’s continued existence and flourishing. This control involves an adaptive flexibility, and can often improve with experience. (Bedau 2011, p. 457) (after Gánti et al. 2003)3
- Growth and reproduction. Old animals and sterile animals and plants are all living, but none can reproduce. So, the capacity to reproduce is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a living organism. However, due to the mortality of individual organisms, a population can survive and flourish only if some organisms in the population reproduce. In this sense, growth and reproduction are what Gánti calls a “potential” rather than “real” life criterion.
- Evolvability. “A living system must have the capacity for hereditary change and, furthermore, for evolution, i.e., the property of producing increasingly complex and differentiated forms over a very long series of successive generations” (Gánti et al. 2003, p. 79). Since what evolves over time are not individual organisms but populations of them, we should rather say that living systems can be members of a population with the capacity to evolve. It is an open question today exactly which kinds of biological populations have the capacity to produce increasing complexity and differentiation.
- Mortality. Living systems are mortal. This is true even of clonal asexual organisms, because death can afflict both individual organisms as well as the whole clone. Systems that could never live cannot die, so death is a property of things that were alive (Bedau 2011, pp. 457–58).4
3. Definition(s) of Life
- Matter and energy-related definitions of life—they take a more mechanistic (thermodynamic), chemical and biochemical (metabolism-, catalysis-, and biosynthesis-related), or wholistic (function- and purpose-related or emergentist) approach.7
- Structure-related definitions of life—they take a more reductionist, cell-related (where a single cell is treated as a central feature of life), or hierarchical (and emergentist) approach.8
- Environmental interactions-related definitions of life—they refer to the micro/macro environment, mutualisms and properties necessary for relating with surroundings and other living beings.
- Evolution-related definitions of life—they are based on the categories of heredity, variation, mutation, adaptation, speciation, etc.
- Information-related definitions of life—they take either a minimalist or genetic approach. The former strives to specify the least amount of information to demarcate life from non-life. The latter takes genes, their expression, and variability (more recently also epigenetic modifications) to be the origin and basic features of life.
- Miscellaneous definitions—they include (i) cybernetic approaches (trying to incorporate computer-based artificial life); (ii) generalist approaches (broad, obscurantist, purposefully vague); (iii) vitalist approaches (grounding life in an as-yet mysterious force); and (iv) parametric approaches (identifying one or more relevant properties of life).9
those that are: (1) composed of bounded micro-environments in thermodynamic equilibrium with their surroundings; (2) capable of transforming energy to maintain their low-entropy states; and (3) able to replicate structurally distinct copies of themselves from an instructional code perpetuated indefinitely through time despite the demise of the individual carrier through which it is transmitted.
[S]cientific essentialism about life might be true, even if contemporary science has reached no consensus about life. Scientific essentialism is a philosophical view about the method by which life’s essence would be discovered—it is not a view about the particular content of that essence. The details of the scientific essentialist definition of life might need to await further scientific progress.10
4. Meta-Analysis of Life’s Definitions
- Wittgensteinian family resemblance definitions—replacing the rigid requirement of listing necessary and sufficient conditions of a given phenomenon with a cluster of properties that share a family resemblance (they might be useful in sorting out marginal cases).
- Operational (working) definitions—based upon the practical study of concrete living beings and their characteristics, favored by scientists yet philosophically shallow, as they are usually narrow in scope.
- Nominal (lexicographer or dictionary) definitions—based on the analysis of the usage of a given term (they might be less useful in sorting out marginal cases).
- Demonstrative or ostensive definitions—derived from a shared observation and access to natural kinds (they might be less useful in sorting out marginal cases).
- Stipulative definitions—introduced and defined by fiat (they may be not specific enough, e.g., the definition of swans as white birds with long necks allows for classifying many cranes as swans and excluding black swans).13
5. Questions Concerning the Origin of Life
(1) did life begin with metabolism, a bounding membrane, a “naked” replicator, or some combination of these? (2) was first life autotrophic (making all of its necessary components itself from simple, small molecules and a source of energy) or heterotrophic (taking in key nutrients from the environment)? (3) did life begin in a soup or at a solid surface; with a hot or cold start; in a strongly, weakly, or nonreducing atmosphere; with photons, hydrogen, heat, or something else as energy source? (4) did first life evolve over a long period of time or arise in an improbable flash of chemical emergence? (5) did first life resemble modern life “in outline” or was it fundamentally different and “taken over” by modern forms that evolved from it? (6) did life on Earth begin on Earth or in outer space? (7) was life an unlikely, wildly improbable, lucky accident or (nearly) inevitable, once the starting materials and conditions were present?(Griesemer 2008, p. 263; see also Bedau 2011, p. 459)
6. Meta-Analysis of the Origin of Life Studies
6.1. Origin of Life and Evolution
6.2. Time Framework
7. Classical Aristotelian Notion of Life
7.1. Hylomorphic Essentialism
8. Aristotle’s Contribution to Contemporary Attempts at Defining Life
8.1. Grounding Properties of Life
8.2. Life as an Emergent Phenomenon
8.3. The Retrieval of Teleology
Living entities are complex, far-from-equilibrium structures maintained by the flow of energy from sources to sinks. They are compartmentalized, organic, homochiral entities, closely associated and communicating with their environment (including other living forms) and at the same time separated from it by a boundary (in extant organisms, a lipid bilayer), and dependent in their activities on a continual flux of energy and matter through this membrane, from their environment. They can replicate, mutate, exchange matter and energy with their environment, and evolve, in processes that are catalyzed by a large arsenal of organic catalysts. The characteristics of most or all of these processes and molecules, as reflected by their chemical cycles, regulation, communication, complementarity, and rhythms, as well as potential life criteria of each organism, corroborate with the principle of continuity. Having evolved from inanimate matter, they constitute autocatalytic, evolvable, teleonomic organic systems that can transfer, store, and process information, based on template- and sequence-directed reactions, all of which characterize autopoietic entities.32
9. Origin of Life and the Classical Principle of Proportionate Causation33
“[T]he begetter is of the same kind as the begotten.”(Meta. VII, 8 [1033b 30])
“[W]hatever perfection exists in an effect must be found in the effective cause.”(ST I, 4, 2, co.)
“[N]o effect exceeds its cause.”(ST II-II, 32, 4, obj. 1) (See also SCG I, 67; ST II, 24, 6, s.c.; De pot. 3, 16, ad 8.)
“[E]very agent produces its like.”(SCG II, 21, no. 9)
“[N]othing acts beyond its species.”(Super II Sent. 18, 2, 3) (See also De ver. 24, 14; Quodl. 9, 5, 1; SCG III, 84; De pot. 3, 9; ST I–II, 112, 1.)
“[T]he order of causes necessarily corresponds to the order of effects, since effects are commensurate with their causes.”(SCG II, 15, no. 4)
“[E]very agent acts according as it is in act.”(SCG II, 6, no. 4)
“No effect can be more powerful than its agent cause.”(Super II Sent. 18, 2, 3, obj. 3) (See also De pot. 3, 8, obj. 13; ST I–II, 112, 1; Comp. theo. 1, 93.)
- The first strategy distinguishes Aristotelian and (Neo-)Platonic notions of what it means to be perfect. The former ties perfection with the completion of an entity within its own nature (in reference to its natural kind). The latter puts it on the hierarchy of perfection that flows from the One (God) all the way down to most imperfect beings. On the account of this distinction, it becomes clear that PPC becomes a problem only on the (Neo-)Platonic scheme, which sees perfection of contingent things in reference to the absolute perfection of the One. Aristotelian metaphysics allows various beings to be considerably different in quantity, quality, and scope of their active and passive properties, and yet equally perfect within their own natural kinds. If true, this principle would certainly apply to the comparison of the entities standing at the transition from non-living to living systems (see Boulter 2021, pp. 131–34).
- The second strategy refers to the medieval concept of dispositions and properties present in things potentially (or virtually), and not actually (or formally). Applying this argument in the contemporary context, Edward Feser reformulates the classical version of the PPC, saying that what it means is that “whatever is in an effect must be in its total cause in some way or other, whether formally, virtually, or eminently” (Feser 2014, p. 155). The crucial point of Feser’s proposal is the notion of a “total cause” of a given entity or phenomenon—in our case, the phenomenon of the origin of life. The category in question draws our attention to the fact that the proportionate cause of the emergence of a first living entity is not a single law or force, but a concurrence of many causal influences constitutive for a transition from non-living to living beings. Some of the perfections required for its occurrence might be present in the members of an evolutionary causal matrix formally, while others might be present in them virtually (through their powers). The causal contribution of such a multiplicity of causes, extended over time and space, provides for a new and higher level of perfection of the first living thing. The notion of an “eminent” presence of perfections in causes can be understood in two ways. First, a singular or a “total” cause may possess a given perfection in excess (eminently) due to its status of being a higher (more perfect) cause. Second, in reference to the medieval concept of a passive obediential capacity (potentia obedientialis), one might argue that the nature of a given cause can be “elevated” by a higher cause such that it is capable to give what by nature it does not have. The “elevation” of such agents is caused by the supernatural concursus of the First Cause, which enables them to bring about effects of an entirely higher order than those within the ambit of their natural powers.36
- The third strategy is based on the conviction that throughout the fundamental transitions in the history of life, the net “amount” of perfection of the universe remains stable. In his account of this approach, Boulter challenges our tendency to pay attention only to increases in operation or power, found in new kinds of entities. What is less immediately obvious, and for the most part neglected, is that new powers and dispositions are usually accompanied by new difficulties, problems, and defects. Hence, the balanced notion of changes reveals that each major transition in the history of the universe involves both increases and decreases in perfection. This allows us to postulate a principle of an overall conservation of perfection in an evolving universe. Again, applied to the origin of life, this strategy would successfully alleviate the difficulty posed by the PPC (see Boulter 2021, pp. 138–41).
- One last attempt at answering the challenge of the PPC, offered by Brian Carl, takes us back to Aquinas. He draws our attention to the complexity of the causal hierarchy in Aquinas, which is often ignored by many who concentrate merely on proximate causes in their analysis of causal dependencies. For Thomas, all causal relationships in the mundane reality happen within God’s providence, where God is conceived as the first and principal cause, working in nature through secondary and instrumental causes. However, between God and mundane creatures, Aquinas sees the causality of angels and celestial spheres, especially the sun, which is the source of heat.37 This approach relates to Feser’s “total cause,” reinterpreting it in reference to the variety of direct and indirect factors contributing to a given change. Applied to the origin of life, this strategy would enable an explanation of its emergence from “less perfect” ingredients and causes on the account of indirect causal contribution of higher contingent causes (see Carl 2020).
10. Theological Account of the Origin of Life
10.1. Life as Naturally Emergent Phenomenon
Biologists generally take a naturalistic stance toward the big questions, considering evolutionary-biological and physical-chemical processes (including stochastic ones) as possible explanations while rejecting supernatural design as out of court. … Despite significant disagreement on many fronts in origins of life studies, there is emerging scientific consensus that life is indeed a natural property of certain types of organized matter … A fairly rapid, naturalistic origin of life is deemed much more plausible than was supposed even in the 1960s.
Life has emerged in the universe without requiring special intervention from a Creator God … All, I claim arose without a creator God. … Is not this view, a view based on an expanded science, God enough? Is not nature itself creativity enough? What more do we really need of God …?
[L]ife on the Earth appears to have emerged through the spontaneous emergence of a simple (unidentified) replicating system, initially fragile, which complexified and evolved towards complex replicating systems exhibiting greater DKS [dynamic kinetic stability]. In fact, we would claim that in the very broadest of terms, the physico-chemical basis of abiogenesis can be considered explained.
God is the cause of everything’s action inasmuch as he gives everything the power to act, and preserves it in being and applies it to action, and inasmuch as by his power every other power acts. And if we add to this that God is his own power, and that he is in all things not as part of their essence but as upholding them in their being, we shall conclude that he acts in every agent immediately, without prejudice to the action of the will and of nature.(De pot. 3, 7, co.).41
10.2. Life as an Outcome of Direct Divine Intervention
There are … two sorts of operation, as Aristotle teaches in Metaphysics IX [1050a 25]: one that remains in the agent and is a perfection of it, as the act of sensing, understanding, and willing; another that passes over into an external thing, and is a perfection of the thing made as a result of that operation, the acts of heating, cutting and building, for example.(SCG II, 1, no. 2; see also Super I Sent. 1, 40, 1, ad 1; De ver., 14, 3)
[The] essence [of life], I claim, is what Aristotelians and Thomists sometimes call immanent causation.42 This is causation that originates with an agent and terminates in that agent for the sake of its self-perfection. It is a kind of teleology, but metaphysically distinctive in what it involves. Immanent causation is not just action for a purpose, but for the agent’s own purpose, where “own purpose” means not merely that the agent acts for a purpose it possesses, but that it acts for a purpose it possesses such that fulfillment of the purpose contributes to the agent’s self-perfection. Hence, in immanent causation, the agent is both the cause and the effect of the action, and the cause itself is directed at the effect as perfective of the agent.
If there is, or so it seems—we could say—no immanent causality what so ever, either formally or virtually, in non-living substances, or in some combination of them, then it is not possible for them to be the cause or causes of living substances. The origin of life then would have to be the effect of something completely other than an inanimate natural cause.
If inanimate things were in themselves to possess the power to cause living things to come into existence, in some way, then it seems that they, these inanimate things, would not be inanimate but rather living things themselves. God’s causality is at work in all changes and God obviously has the power to cause living things to come into existence. But God creates causes to be the kind of causes that they are. If inanimate things by nature could cause living things to emerge, God would be creating that which was and that which was not what it is … So, it seems to me that the initial emergence of life requires something more than natural causes functioning in the ordinary way according to which nature and God are the complete causes of what happens in the world.
11. Status Questionis on Divine Action in the Origin of Life
11.1. The Limits of Natural Science
11.2. Aquinas on the Emergence of Life
We must conclude, then, that these reasons [rationes seminales] were created to exercise their causality in either one way or the other: by providing for the ordinary development of new creatures in appropriate periods of time, or by providing for the rare occurrence of a miraculous production of a creature, in accordance with what God wills as proper for the occasion.(De Gen. ad litt. 6.14)
Now the production of plants from the earth into actual existence belongs to the work of propagation, since the powers of the heavenly body as father, and of the earth as mother suffice for their production. Hence the plants were not actually produced on the third day but only in their causes: and after the six days they were brought into actual existence in their respective species and natures by the work of government.(De pot. 4, 2, ad 28)50
[Some things come into being neither through motion nor through generation] because of the necessity that generation always generates what is similar in species. For this reason the first members of the species were immediately created by God, such as the first man, the first lion, and so forth.(Super II Sent., 1, 1, 4, co.)
Man, for instance, can only be generated from man. It is, however, otherwise with those things which are not generated by an agent that is similar to them in species. For these, rather, the power of celestial bodies along with appropriate matter is sufficient, as, for example, those things which are generated by putrefaction.(Super II Sent., 1, 1, 4, co.)
11.3. Transient and Immanent Causation
life will be accepted as a polysemous concept with each definitional cluster applying to a subset of the whole: biochemical life, evolutionary life, metabolic life, etc. Researchers may rely on context, accept some miscommunication, or simply stipulate the kind of life they mean.
Conflicts of Interest
Carlos Mariscal notes that “Scientists grow more concerned about philosophical questions when scientific limitations or conceptual choices are made apparent to them. Those scientists who study deep time, deep space, abstract issues, or questions of ethics are often keenly aware of the philosophical choices that influence their research from identification of research question to interpretation of the data” (Mariscal 2021, sct. 6).
To have a grasp of the complexity of the more recent state of the debate on the definition of life, see (Bedau 2011; Bedau and Cleland 2010, 2019; Gánti et al. 2003; Mariscal 2021; Mix 2018; Popa 2004).
Bedau notes that there are many similar lists and that the items listed in them—even if they are heterogenous—mostly overlap. He refers to (Smith 1986) and (Mayr 1997).
On mortality, see (Musi and Hornsby 2021).
See (Mariscal 2021, sct. 1.2). I will say more on the origin of life below. Astrobiology strives to specify biosignatures (markers of life) in the universe. Its separate division searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Studies on artificial life (A-life) take either a functionalist (strong) or a more wholistic (weak) approach. Strong A-Life states that robots or computer programs might qualify as animate. Weak A-Life strives to better understand life as we know it by placing it in a broader context of possible biology. The former receives pushback based on ontology (the assumption that life requires biochemical embodiment). Synthetic biology strives to produce self-replicating minimal genomes (simple living organisms). They all need a definition of life to proceed. See (Mariscal 2021, scts. 3, 5, and 7).
See (Mariscal 2021, table 1 in sct. 1.2; Bedau 2011, pp. 462–66). Mariscal grounds his exposition in (Popa 2004; Trifonov 2011; Malaterre and Chartier 2021).
Bedau thinks that biochemical definitions of life may be charged with presupposing a prior account of life. He also thinks they are often myopic (presuming that all possible life forms are quite similar to the ones we know). Concerning the functional approach, Bedau claims it can be challenged on being too general, as it seems to treat life substratum’s material nature as irrelevant to life-defining functions. Moreover, it might be the case that processes defining life are not amenable for formal and computational description. It is also possible that, at the end of the day, functionalism does not answer to the question about which processes play what role in the functional account of life. With respect to the metabolism- and catalysis-related definition, on many accounts of the energetic cycle of living entities, it is closely related to autopoiesis. See (Bedau 2011, pp. 462–65). The emergentist approach defines life in reference to new and irreducible regularity and order instantiated on higher levels of complexity of matter. See (Tabaczek 2020).
The hierarchical approach is mimicked in synthetic biology, where “an artificial cell is viewed as any chemical system that chemically integrates three processes: The first is the process of assembling some kind of container, such as a lipid vesicle, and living inside it. The second is the metabolic processes that repair and regenerate the container and its contents, and enable the whole system to reproduce. Those chemical processes are shaped and directed by a third chemical process involving encoded information about the system stored in the system (‘genes’). Errors (‘mutations’) can occur when this information is reproduced, so the systems can evolve by natural selection. The integrated-triad view of life requires that the chemical processes of containment, metabolism, and evolution support and enable each other, so that there is functional feedback among all three” (Bedau 2011, p. 463).
It becomes apparent, on further reflection, that these positions need not be competitive. To give an example, metabolism- and function-related definitions of life may go hand in hand with the hierarchical integrated-triad account of minimal life proposed in synthetic biology.
Note that Bedau refers here to the contemporary analytic notion of hylomorphism, where essences of natural kinds are defined in reference to underlying passive and active causal powers of things/processes, which are amenable for a scientific description and verification. See (Kripke 1980).
As Griesemer notes, “An alternative to the definitional approach is to develop metaheuristics that delimit the evaluation of criteria, models, and evidence rather than attempting to delimit what constitutes life” (Griesemer 2008, p. 274).
See (Mariscal 2021, sct. 1; Bedau 2011, p. 458). In Section 6 of his article, Mariscal adds that ecology is another division of biology where we can observe “a twilight zone”: “Organisms form populations, species, lineages, clades, and ecosystems. The status of each of these is an open question, but they have many of the same features associated with life … Perhaps the strongest case can be made for eusocial insects, such as some ants, bees, wasps, and termites” (Mariscal 2021, sct. 6). Even more controversial is the notion of Gaia, which personifies the entire planet Earth and sees the Earth-wide set of ecosystems as a single entity (see Lovelock and Lovelock 1979).
Having listed various types of definitions, Mariscal notes that more recently we can observe a movement away from definitions towards (1) “prototypes” (concepts listing abstract features shared by most but not all members of one category; (2) “exemplars” (concepts built around similarities to particular known cases); or (3) “theory concepts” (concepts modeled on scientific theories). See (Mariscal 2021, sct. 1) with references to main proponents of all three strategies. One more strategy is simply to give a taxonomy of living things. This may be challenged on its assumption that the life we know exhausts what life is or could be. Bedau classifies it as a form of skepticism about defining life (see Bedau 2011, p. 462).
This debate has a long history, going back to ancient Greek philosophy. See (Griesemer 2008, pp. 267–68; Mariscal 2021, scts. 1.1 and 4). For the more recent account of this conversation, see (Deamer 2020; Deamer and Fleischaker 1994; Dyson 1999; Eigen and Winkler-Oswatitsch 1992; Fry 2000; Hazen 2005; Kauffman 1993; Luisi 2006; Morowitz 2002).
I follow the list presented by Griesemer (2008, p. 265) with the examples of researchers applying particular methods and offering particular theories. A separate topic of discussion is the origin of the DNA–protein system. In response to the fact that DNA is replicated and transcribed only in the presence of protein enzymes, the structure of which is, in turn, specified by DNA (genes)—a classical example of the chicken–egg problem—the RNA world hypothesis was offered. It assumes that RNA once served both functions: the replicative-information carrying function of nucleic acid and the catalytic metabolic function of protein. The division of labor was kept because it provided an evolutionary advantage. While plausible, this hypothesis raises a number of critical questions, including: (1) the exact mechanism of the division of labor, (2) the source of the energy and nucleotides for RNA to function as a naked ribozymic replicator, (3) the origin of the genetic code, and (4) the way in which replication worked in a mixed world of RNA and DNA, before the advent of protein enzymes (assuming that DNA came first, which might not have been the case). These and other aspects of the RNA hypothesis are summarized in (Griesemer 2008, pp. 279–82).
See (Mariscal 2021, sct. 4; Griesemer 2008, p. 276). Concerning the top-down approach, Griesemer claims that “The LUCA was too similar to modern life to be much of a guide to how life of that sort could have originated from mere chemicals” (Griesemer 2008, p. 273).
In a related yet more general reflection, he adds: “His [Darwin’s] vision no longer seems grand enough, however, in the face of our vastly greater knowledge of chemistry, biochemistry, molecular developmental biology, phylogenetic systematics, evo-devo, epigenetics, genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics, in addition to paleobiology, geophysics, geochemistry, mineralogy, climatology, and astrobiology” (Griesemer 2008, p. 266).
Griesemer concludes that “All of our biological assumptions must be reassessed or risk begging questions, e.g., that genes are made of nucleic acids, that life must be cellular, and even that evolution is the driving process” (Griesemer 2008, p. 267).
Woese thinks that life is currently still at the bacterial level of organization (once we take into account the proportion between the biomass of micro- and macro-organisms), and that the common conviction that cellular life is divided into procaryotes and eucaryotes is likely false.
See (Griesemer 2008, pp. 270–73). He notes that while some researchers date life to be 3.8 or 3.9 billion years old and estimate the time window of its origin to fall between 0.2–0.4 billion years, David Penny narrows it even more, to 100 million years (Penny 2005, p. 660). Others go still further and speak about a mere 10 or even 5 million years. However, if life had its origin somewhere else (not on the earth), our estimated time framework of its emergence is most likely wrong.
This means they also remain doubtful about nominal, demonstrative, and stipulative definitions of life (see Section 4 above) or following definitional skepticism in reference to the phenomenon of life.
“‘Cause’ means (…) (2) The form or pattern, i.e., the definition of the essence, and the classes which include this (e.g., the ratio 2:1 and number in general are causes of the octave), and the parts included in the definition” [Meta. V, 2 (1013a 27–28)]. See also Phys. II, 3 (194b 26–27).
Trying to avoid the error of reducing the metaphysically robust notion of substantial form to geometrical shape or outward appearance, Terrence Irwin rightly notes that “if the form of the statue is essential to it, then other features besides shape must constitute the form, and the reference to shape can at most give us a very rough first conception of form. If we turn from artifacts to organisms, it is even clearer that form cannot be just the same as shape” (Irwin 1988, p. 100).
Michael Storck notes that “not only do we not sense substantial forms, but we do not measure them with scientific instruments either. We sense the size, shape, color, and so forth, of things, and we measure their frequency, mass, temperature, electrical charge, and so on. It is only through our intellect that we are able to grasp something, often not very clearly, of the substantial forms of natural things” (Storck 2008, p. 55).
Dismissing ontological uncertainty and the tendency to treat substantial unity as mereological structures, Aquinas distinguishes among notions of form as the (1) arrangement of parts, (2) union by contact and bond, and (3) union effecting an alteration of the component parts. Only the last refers to the substantial form and substantial change of parts at their entering wholes, which makes certain composite things (most notably living beings) be not mere aggregates of building blocks, but unified entities. See, In Meta. V, lect. 3 (§ 779). See also (Tabaczek 2019, pp. 217–18).
“Again (4) in the sense of end or ‘that for the sake of which’ a thing is done, e.g., health is the cause of walking about. (‘Why is he walking about?’ we say. ‘To be healthy,’ and, having said that, we think we have assigned the cause.) The same is true also of all the intermediate steps which are brought about through the action of something else as means towards the end, e.g., reduction of flesh, purging, drugs, or surgical instruments are means towards health. All these things are ‘for the sake of’ the end, though they differ from one another in that some are activities, others instruments” (Phys. II, 3 [194b 29–195a 2]). A similar definition can be found in Meta. V, 2 (1013a 29–1013b 2). See also Phys. II, 7 (198a 18–20); Meta. I, 2 (983a 30–32).
See, for instance, De part. an. III, 2 (663b 12–14); IV, 5 (679a 25–30); De gen. an. II, 4 (739b 27–31); III, 4 (755a 17–30). Bostock lists a number of scholars claiming that “Aristotle would concede (at least for the sake of argument) that a complete materialist explanation might perhaps be available, and yet still insist that a teleological account was also needed” (Bostock 2006, p. 58). He suggests this “seems to be roughly the position that we ourselves are in nowadays” (ibid., p. 60).
The approach to the phenomenon of life that sees its properties as ontologically constitutive for animate beings remains close to the bundle theory of substance. Similar to this theory, it faces the question concerning the “metaphysical glue” that unifies and holds together a set of more or less rigidly specified properties of life. Once again, Aristotle’s hylomorphism offers a valuable and intriguing response to this query. At the same time, the phenomenologically grounded reference to empirically traceable (structural and dispositional) properties of organisms makes their grounding principle of substantial form accessible beyond a purely speculative analysis.
For an account of the debate triggered by Kim’s argument, see (Paolini Paoletti and Orilia 2017; Tabaczek 2019, pp. 78–91).
See also (Deacon and Koutroufinis 2014, pp. 407–8; Deacon 2012, chp. 12). Deacon and Cashman notice that the teleological character of the physical work required in the construction of an organism “is ignored in theories of evolution that are limited to natural selection logic alone” (Deacon and Cashman 2013, p. 291).
Walsh offers an answer to the three standard objections concerning teleological explanations: (1) To the argument of the backward causation of nonfactual future states of affairs, he answers that it is goal-directedness, as an intrinsic property of a system, and not unactualized goals, that explains the presence of traits in an organism; (2) to the argument that all teleological explanations require intentionality, he answers that, for Aristotle, teleology is present in both non-rational and rational nature. Intentionality is not necessary to apply a teleological explanation; (3) to the argument that all teleological explanations appear to have a normative import, he answers that “Teleology does not require a category of value-bearing goal states; it only requires goal-directedness” (Walsh 2008, pp. 116–21). See also (Wallace 1996, pp. 15–18).
For more on the debate concerning teleology and function in the contemporary philosophy of biology, see (Robert Cummins 1975; Craver 2013; Wright 1973, 1976; Allen and Neal 2020; Allen et al. 1998; Walsh 2008; Grene and Depew 2004, pp. 313–21; Rosenberg and McShea 2008, pp. 87–93; Sober 1993, pp. 83–88; Godfrey-Smith 2010, pp. 175–88).
The treatment of this problem presented here is based on my upcoming monograph, entitled Theistic Evolution: A Contemporary Aristotelian-Thomistic Perspective (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
See, for example, the views of William Carroll described in Section 10.2; (Chaberek 2019).
Boulter (2021, p. 142n2) notes that “The scholastic principle of proportionality has close affinities with the contemporary principle of causal commensuration in that it codifies a set of intuitions regarding what we take to be a possible cause of a given effect. The contemporary formulation of the shared core idea is that a cause is commensurate with an effect if it has ‘all that is required to produce the effect, and as little as possible that is not’ (Yablo 1992). This is thought to be equivalent to the claim that a commensurate cause is sufficient but also necessary for a given effect.”
Although one could argue that the divine “elevation” of contingent causes is not so much a miracle but an expression of God’s agency in the universe through the instrumental causation of creatures, the argument based on potentia obedientialis might be less favored by the naturalistically oriented mind of a contemporary scientist.
It is important to remember, in this context, that the ancient and medieval idea of causation of celestial bodies is not just a relic of an outdated cosmology. It is not entirely implausible to see the energy emitted by the sun, forces of gravitation, and other universal cosmological causal principles as contributing to the educing particular forms from primary matter in processes of substantial changes occurring in nature. At the same time, this general supposition must be distinguished from the outdated science. The ancient and medieval scientists thought that it was through heat that matter was qualitatively disposed to enter a substantial change in which its underlying primary matter was informed by a soul of a given type. They thought semen was a thoroughly concocted blood endowed with powers similar to blood (to produce flesh and organs) yet directed to do so in the conception of a new organism, from the matter provided by the female (see De gen. an. II, 4 [740b 24]).
“(Life) is a natural, emergent expression of the routine creativity of the universe … To the devout who require that a Creator God have brought it forth, science says, wait—we are coming to understand how it all arose naturally with no Creator’s hand” (Kauffman 2008, pp. 59, 89).
“Just as it is not unfitting for one action to be produced by an agent and its power, so it is not inappropriate for the same effect to be produced by a lower agent and God: by both immediately, though in different ways” (SCG III, 70, no. 5). On this account, a natural agent is a cause of the coming-to-be (causa fiendi) of a thing, whereas they cannot be the ultimate cause of its being (causa essendi). See Super I Sent. 7, 1, 1, ad 3; De ver. 5, 8, ad 8; De pot. 5, 1; ST I, 104, 1.
See also ST III, 62, 1, co.; III, 62, 1, ad 2; Super III Sent. 18, 1, 1, ad 4; SCG III, 147, no. 6; ST I, 45, 5, co.; III, 19, 1, co.; 62, 4, co.; 66, 5, ad 1. One of the anonymous reviewers of the article refers to Aquinas spelling out God’s primary causation through creaturely secondary causation in a fourfold way in De Pot. 3, 7, saying that God (1) creates and (2) conserves the powers of creatures, as well as (3) applies them to act, and (4) does so instrumentally. Hence, in a way, instrumental causation is built into the distinction between primary and secondary causation. He also mentions John Wippel’s argument that if only God can be the cause of esse and yet secondary causes can be considered as producing esse, then each and every secondary cause must be an instrumental cause. Therefore, even the secondary causes that act according to their natural dispositions could be regarded as instrumental causes in some sense. See (Wippel 2000).
On another occasion, commenting on Aristotle’s Physics (II, lect. 14 [§ 268]), Aquinas states: “Nature is nothing but a certain kind of art, i.e., the divine art, impressed upon things, by which these things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if the shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of a ship.” The view presented here finds support in (Vicuña 2015, pp. 9–10).
Oderberg notes: “Aquinas speaks of self-movement rather than immanent causation, but he means the same thing: organisms change themselves (motus meaning “change” for Aquinas); see Summa theologiae I.q18.aa1 and 2” (Oderberg 2020, p. 111, note 4). He develops similar argumentation in (Oderberg 2007, pp. 177–83; Oderberg 2018, pp. 211–33).
In a similar vein, Juan Eduardo Carreño claims “[T]he living being possesses esse in a more radical fashion than non-living beings, and because of this it is a more perfect sort of substance. This intensified substantiality, in turn is manifested at the entitative level by a more radical fulfillment of transcendental perfections and, at the operative level, in immanent and spontaneous activity, the two notes that are prima facie evident to us” (Carreño 2015, p. 375).
Carroll claims “This is exactly the philosophical conclusion of Oderberg and Feser. For them immanent causation can never arise in any way from transient causation. That is, no amount of transient causation can ever, over time, give rise to immanent causation. Immanent causation is not simply a matter of greater complexity in the agent that exercises such causality. It is not, so to speak, transient causation plus something extra” (Carroll 2022, pp. 46:00–46:40).
This view differs significantly from the one Carroll expressed in (Carroll and Vicuña 2017).
A similar argument is proposed by the followers of the Intelligent Design project. See, e.g., (Behe et al. 2002).
Later on, in book 7, Augustine adds: “The things [that God] had potentially created … [came] forth in the course of time on different days according to their different kinds … [and] the rest of the earth [was] filled with its various kinds of creatures, [which] produc[ed] their appropriate forms in due time” (De Gen. ad litt. 7.22).
ST I, 69, 2, co.: “In these first days God created all things in their origin or causes, and from this work He subsequently rested. Yet, afterwards, by governing His creatures, in the work of propagation, ‘He worketh until now.’ Now the production of plants from out the earth is a work of propagation, and therefore they were not produced in act on the third day, but in their causes only.”
See also De pot. 4, 2, ad 28: “Before the plants were produced causally, nothing was produced, but they were produced together with the heaven and the earth. In like manner the fishes, birds and animals were produced in those six days causally and not actually.” Aquinas alludes to the concept of rationes seminales on several other occasions. See, e.g.,: Super IV Sent., 48, 2, 1, ad 3; ST I, 62, 3, co.; ST I, 74, 2, co. and ad 1–2.
It should be remembered that the second part of the corpus and all responses to arguments in this article were most likely written by Vincentius Castronovo and not by Aquinas himself, who probably left the article in question unfinished.
The reference for this quotation was provided above, in Section 10.2. Concerning the causality of celestial spheres, it would not be justified to claim that in Aquinas’s hierarchy of causes, the sun—as a higher cause—is a source of life as such, i.e., sharing a perfection it itself possesses. Rather, it should be seen as an instrumental cause through which God brings into existence something that goes beyond its natural dispositions (educing vegetative substantial form from the potentiality of primary matter).
In other words, to claim with Oderberg that the essence of life is defined by immanent causation (which he identifies with teleology) is rather imprecise. The essence of life for Aristotle and his followers is specified by a unique type of substantial form which he calls soul.
Another important aspect of this conversation requires an introduction of a distinction between the two types of immanent causation. It may be either (1) a purely intrinsic action of a substance or (2) an extrinsic action of a substance that terminates in an effect that is beneficial for the cause. (1) can be defined as an action of an entity that influences one of its parts either (a) spontaneously or (b) in response to an external stimulus. An example of (1a) may be a replication of DNA in a living cell or the persistent “sustenance” and “control” of a dynamic configuration of elementary particles and the atomic structure of an inanimate complex molecule. An example of (1b) may be a change of an ionic gradient in a living cell in response to the external environment or a reconfiguration of atoms in an inanimate chemical compound within an electromagnetic field. In the case of (2), one might think about a living cell secreting substances to fight an external pathogen or a resistance of a molecule or a compound in response to an external force that effects the change of its configuration (in terms of an action—re-action type of interaction). Note that (2) brings together transeunt and immanent causation, which reveals the complexity of causal dependencies in nature. It is also important to remember that (1) (both 1a and 1b) does not violate the Aristotelian principle that everything that is moved must be moved by someone else, since it refers to the situations in which a whole substance “moves,” i.e., exercises efficient causation on one of its parts.
As Joe Sachs notes, “Aristotle invents the word by combining enteles [ἐντελής] (complete, full-grown) with echein (= hexis, to be a certain way by the continuing effort of holding on in that condition), while at the same time punning on endelecheia [ἐνδελέχεια] (persistence) by inserting telos [τέλος] (completion). This is a three-ring circus of a word, at the heart of everything in Aristotle’s thinking, including the definition of motion” (Sachs 1995, p. 245). Commenting on this term, O’Rourke says, “It is form (μορφή), therefore, which is nature (φύσις [physis]). It is form as ἐντελέχεια which is the τέλος [telos] of γένεσις [genesis], that is, of the coming-to-be of φύσις. In its state of completion, φύσις is synonymous with ἐντελέχεια, the fulfillment of εἶδος” (O’Rourke 2004, p. 17).
See also In Phys. II, lect. 11 (§ 242).
One of the main difficulties of Deacon’s retrieval of teleology is his conviction that it is necessary to explain the way in which teleological properties emerge from nonteleological, i.e., explain the way in which the causal dynamics of teleological processes emerges from simpler, blind, mechanistic systems. See (Deacon 2012, p. 275).
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Tabaczek, M. Aristotelian-Thomistic Contribution to the Contemporary Studies on Biological Life and Its Origin. Religions 2023, 14, 214. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14020214
Tabaczek M. Aristotelian-Thomistic Contribution to the Contemporary Studies on Biological Life and Its Origin. Religions. 2023; 14(2):214. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14020214Chicago/Turabian Style
Tabaczek, Mariusz. 2023. "Aristotelian-Thomistic Contribution to the Contemporary Studies on Biological Life and Its Origin" Religions 14, no. 2: 214. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14020214