Aquinas: God’s Creation

In 1a.45, Aquinas asks about creation. I really recommend flipping through this question in your own time – you can find it online here. We’re going to skip the first question (‘Does creating mean making something from nothing?’) and go straight to 1a.45.2. Here Aquinas asks ‘Can God create anything?’ His first response: No, probably not. 

The first objection lies in the medieval understanding of how change happened. We’ve got our old distinction between actuality and potentiality: basically, if there’s something that can happen to you, it’s part of your potentiality. So water has the potential to be frozen into ice, and that potential is something that’s sort of stored within the water’s being. For Aquinas, and many other medieval theologians, God is pure actuality. There is no potentiality in Him; He’s entirely actualised and there’s nothing more that could be changed or brought out of Him to make Him better in any way. He’s perfect, and therefore fully actual. The idea here is that actuality is better than potentiality, which might seem a little weird – if you think about the ice example, surely ice still has the potential to melt back into water or be evaporated into steam. We haven’t removed any amount of potentiality by changing its form. It’s not ‘better’ in any meaningful sense.

Anyway, that’s the distinction between potentiality and actuality. In his first objection, Aquinas argues that change involves something potential becoming actual. Water has the potential to become ice, and ‘change’ is what happens when that potential becomes actualized. But here’s the thing: how can God create something from nothing when nothing has no potential? Moving from non-being to being involves a change, but change requires potential to be made actual, and nothing has no potential – it’s just nothing. Hence, Aquinas argues, “for God to make something out of nothing is impossible.” This point kinda relates to the previous question: Aquinas argues in 45.1 that creation does mean making something from nothing. Here, he’s arguing that if creation holds that definition, then it’s impossible by definition and God cannot create.

The other arguments are pretty excellent too. Imagine you’re building a table, right – say you’ve got all the parts, and you’re in the process of sticking them together. There’s a clear distinction between the building process and the final product – between the parts becoming a table and the table complete. Thus Aquinas says “what has been made must at some time have been in the process of being made.” So normally, something is in the process of being made, and then it’s made. But you can’t say that when God creates stuff out of nothing. They just – pop – jump into existence. Created things (that is, divinely created things) have no period of being made – but if something doesn’t have a period of being made, then how could it have come to exist? If anything exists, it must at some point have come to exist – it must have been in the process of being made. If created things do not have that process of being made, they cannot logically exist, and therefore God cannot create anything out of nothing.

Aquinas has a bunch of variations on this argument, and I highly recommend them. I won’t go into them here – I’ll just briefly mention a couple. For example, you can’t say that created things both have their period of creation and are created simultaneously – that is, “you cannot contend that what is created is at one and the same time both becoming made and already made.” Logically, either something is or it isn’t. If a table exists, it exists, but if a table is being built, then it doesn’t exist yet. Becoming and being cannot coexist; they are unable to coexist by definition.

The last argument is quite similar to the being/becoming issue: “an infinite distance… lies between being and nothing. Hence the making of something from nothing does not come about.” There’s a similar issue raised about the relationship between existing and not existing – the transition between the two just doesn’t make any sense. We understand what it means for one thing to change into another – we know about the transfer of energy and so on. But nothing into something? It just doesn’t make sense. The gap between existence and non-existence is infinite; it’s too big to be crossed by anything.

Some of Aquinas’s rebuttals are relatively common sense, but there’s an especially fun one that I’m keen to talk about. He opens by basically arguing that, well, obviously things do exist, and they must’ve come from somewhere (ie God), so it’s pointless to argue otherwise. It’s just contrarian. Of course, that doesn’t resolve the issue: it’s one thing to say that a hypothesis is plainly wrong, and quite another to prove it. So Aquinas rolls his sleeves up and gets going. Creation, he suggests, is not actually a change, “except merely according to our way of understanding.” We call the shift from non-existence to existence a change, because it seems to fulfill our typical definition of the term (like ice to water). But fundamentally, creation ex nihilo is quite different to normal change, because obviously there’s no subject before the change. There’s no water being changed into ice, right, there’s just – pop – suddenly ice.

So we can talk about creation as a process of change, but that’s not really accurate. It’s better to refer to the processes of making and being. Aquinas notes that acting on something and being acted on come together in the change that takes place in an object. You can act on water by pointing a freeze ray at it; the water is acted on by the freeze ray and turns into ice. Acting on something and being acted on come together in the change that takes place in an object. If you remove the concept of change from that equation, “you are left just with the relations diverse in the creator and in the thing created.” This is really sweet, when you think about it. There’s nothing, and then there’s something, and it only makes sense in terms of the relations between creator and creation. Creation is itself a relational thing. Existence is relational. Matter is relational. At the very core of the universe is relationality. That’s fucking cool.

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