Do Human Beings Create?

Do Human Beings Create? September 28, 2017

In ST I, 45, 5, Thomas Aquinas asks whether God alone creates. His sed contra cites Augustine’s de Trinitate (3.8), where Augustine says that angels cannot create anything. If angels cannot, Thomas reasons, neither can any other creature. He presents several arguments in favor of this conclusion.

Creation is, Thomas Aquinas argues, “absolute positing . . . of everything in its full concreteness of existence.” In this, finite causes make no contributions at all. In order to create – in order to posit absolute being, the existence of a thing – one must not only have being but be being itself. We participate analogically in the being of God, but we don’t participate in creation.

Human beings can cause “being in this or that way,” but not being “absolutely.” Finite beings can cause “per accidens” but not as such.

He offers several arguments. Universal effects must, he argues have universal causes. Existence itself is the most universal effect; all that exists participates in this effect of existence (naturam essendi). Existence must have a cause that matches the effect in its scope. The cause must be universal too. Since God is the “first and most universal cause,” existence must be caused by God.

He admits that intelligences (angels) and noble souls work by divine operation, but that production is limited to the production of this or that being, not the production of existence itself. Creation means the production of existence, and so the productions of creatures don’t qualify.

What about the possibility that creatures might be used as instruments of God’s creative act, as a tool. On that model, the creature doesn’t originate existence from itself at all but still contributes instrumentally to the making of something.

Elsewhere Thomas uses carpentry as an illustration of the operation of primary and secondary causes, and he does so again here. As Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it (see Holy Teaching, 103, fn 10), it’s possible to say that “the carpenter cut the wood” and also to say “the saw cut the wood.” Can we say “God created X” and at the same time say, with equal truth, “Adam created X”?

Thomas doesn’t think the analogy works. Secondary instrumental causes work by some character that is proper to themselves. The saw cuts because it is sharp, and the carpenter has to use the saw because he can’t cut the lumber he needs for the table without the sharpness of the saw. The saw’s contribution depends on the saw’s properties, and the saw’s contribution is “dispositive.” Bauerschmidt again (fn. 11): “it prepares for what the tool wielder wants to do (e.g., the carpenter wants to build a bench, and the saw prepares the wood for that purpose).”

If, on the other hand, a secondary cause doesn’t have any property of its own that contributes to realizing the intention of the principal cause, it’s not needed. There would be no use or need to use a saw if the saw couldn’t help.

Creation, remember, is the act of bringing something into existence. That is presupposed by every other effect. Something has to exist in order to be used as a tool. Nothing, Thomas says, “can act as a preparation for instrument for this effect, since creation is not from anything presupposed that could be prepared by the action of the instrumental agent.”

Timothy McDermott paraphrases the argument: Tools are only dispositive “when the tool has something of its own to contribute, preparing the main effect; the tool would otherwise be useless, and specific jobs would not require specific tools. Thus a saw by cutting wood, its own specialty, shapes a bench, the carpenter’s specialty. But God’s proper effect in creating is what every other effect presupposes, namely existence itself. Nothing can act as a tool and contribute to that effect, for creation presupposes nothing that the operation of a tool could prepare. So it is altogether impossible for creatures to create, either by their own power or as tools and intermediaries” (quoted in Bauerschmidt, 104, fn 13).

Thomas’s fundamental point cannot be gainsaid. God creates from nothing and nothing else does. But there are some questionable twists in Thomas’s argument, and also some fundamental objections that suggest a need for a different approach to the issue.

Thomas’s reply to the first objection is revealing. The objection, taken from Aristotle, is that perfected beings can make things in their own likeness. Immaterial creatures are more fully realized than material ones (!), and even material creatures can make a likeness of themselves: fire can spread by producing more fire, human beings can have children. So, an immaterial substance can make a thing like itself.

Thomas’s reply is that when a perfect thing – a thing fully realized in act – imparts a nature to make a likeness of itself, it’s not producing that nature “in an absolute sense” but only the “cause by which human nature is in the person who is begotten.” That action presupposes the existence of human nature; one cannot produce human nature as such, for then he would be self-creating. And the action of generating also presupposes the existence of particular matter, which allows the particular human being to exist.

Thomas then draws an analogy. The relation of human nature to particular humans is that of participation; and by the same token, particular creatures exist by participating in the “nature of existing” (naturam essendi), which God alone creates.

On this argument, it appears, what God creates aren’t particular things but natures, and that the specific things that participate in those natures are the product of modifications that creatures can make. We cannot make “existence” exist; but we can cause “existence to be ‘in this particular thing.’” The carpenter doesn’t create the existence in which the table shares; but he does cause existence to be within the particular table that he makes. He causes this thing to be brought into existence.

This is, on the one hand, an odd limitation of our understanding of creation – God creates natures. But, perhaps more importantly, it elevates the work of creatures quite considerably. We do bring new things into existence; we just don’t create the nature of existence as such.

We might also raise a biblical objection: By Thomas’s definition, Genesis 1:1 qualifies as a truly creative act. But other acts during the creation week don’t qualify as acts of creation. God speaks to the earth to produce plants, and it does; He speaks to the waters and they teem with fish; He forms Adam from the pre-existing dust. In some of these cases, the creation receives the power to produce and create new things. Creatures create by the empowerment of the Creator.

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