t f p g+ YouTube icon

Creation, Cosmology, and the Insights of Thomas Aquinas

Bookmark and Share

February 21, 2012 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time
Creation, Cosmology, and the Insights of Thomas Aquinas

Today's entry was written by Dr. William E. Carroll. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Developments in cosmology are often used to argue that contemporary science has eliminated the need to appeal to a creator to explain the origin and development of the universe. Recent books by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow [The Grand Design (2010)] and Lawrence Krauss [A Universe From Nothing. Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (2012)] illustrate well the theme that the origin of the universe, indeed the very ancient philosophical question of why there is something rather than nothing, now falls within the explanatory grasp of cosmology and quantum physics. Hawking and Mlodinow deny the intelligibility of a "beginning" to the universe, since time itself has emerged in the very early universe. Embracing a version of the multiverse hypothesis, they conclude: "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God . . . to set the Universe going."1 Famously, they remark that "philosophy is dead,"2 and when interviewed by Larry King on CNN, Hawking opined that "theology is irrelevant."3

For Lawrence Krauss, the sense of "nothing" employed by those who speak of creation out-of-nothing can now be adequately explained in terms of contemporary physics. As a result, he thinks that the question, why there is something rather than nothing "is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question."4 No divine cause is necessary.

Claims by authors like Hawking and Krauss about the explanatory reach of science are ostensibly made on the basis of developments in science, but they are really metaphysical judgments, frequently advanced without a sound philosophical foundation. If there is a metaphysical assumption lurking behind this view, it is that the mere existence of things needs no explanation.

Whether we speak of explanations of the Big Bang itself (such as quantum tunnelling from nothing) or of some version of a multiverse hypothesis, or of self-organizing principles in biological change (including, at times, appeals to randomness and chance as ultimate explanations), the conclusion which seems inescapable to many is that there is no need to appeal to a creator, that is, to any cause which is outside the natural order. Nature is self-sufficient, not only with respect to the effects which it produces, but in that it somehow generates its very own existence. Thus, the traditional notion of God's creative act disappears; it becomes a mere artefact from a less enlightened age.

The use of insights from cosmology to deny the need for a creator are, at times, countered by scholars who use traditional Big Bang cosmology in support of the doctrine of creation. William Lane Craig is perhaps the most famous proponent of such a view. But we can add the recent work of Robert Spitzer who, in New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, claims that modern physics shows us that the past time of the universe is finite. The general argument is that an initial "singularity" [the Big Bang], outside the categories of space and time, points to a supernatural cause of the beginning of the universe.5 Even Pope Pius XII once remarked (in 1951) that this cosmology offered support for what the opening of Genesis revealed. If the universe has such a beginning, it must be created.6

Thus, we have some cosmologists who deny the intelligibility of the very notion of a beginning and others who argue for variations of an eternal universe. Since there is no real beginning to the universe, there is no need to speak of a creator. On the other hand, we have others who say that science affirms an absolute beginning to the universe, which serves as a warrant for the doctrine of creation. Despite fundamental differences as to what contemporary cosmology tells us (beginning or no beginning), all these views tend to identify what it means for the universe to be created with its having a temporal beginning. This emphasis on beginnings leads to confusion about creation.

In order to disentangle much of the confusion evident in contemporary discussions about creation and cosmology, it is useful to reprise the clear distinctions Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) draws between creation and the natural sciences. For Thomas, creation is a topic for metaphysics and theology. The doctrine of creation affirms that all that is, in whatever way or ways it is, depends upon God as cause. The natural sciences have as their subject the world of changing things: from subatomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a change there must be something that changes. Whether these changes are biological or cosmological, without beginning or end, or temporally finite, they remain processes. Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. Creation is not a change. To cause completely something to exist is not to produce a change in something, is not to work on or with some existing material. When God's creative act is said to be "out of nothing," what is meant is that God does not use anything in creating all that is: it does not mean that there is a change from "nothing" to "something."

Cosmology and all the other natural sciences offer accounts of change; they do not address the metaphysical and theological questions of creation; they do not speak to why there is something rather than nothing. It is a mistake to use arguments in the natural sciences to deny creation. Similarly, it is a mistake to use arguments in cosmology to seek to confirm the doctrine of creation.

Thomas does think that reason alone can lead us to a recognition that all that is is caused by God, but the path to such a conclusion is in metaphysics, not in the natural sciences. Arguments for God as Creator are different from arguments in natural philosophy for God as the source of order and intelligibility in the universe. Explanations of order and design in nature are different from accounts of why there is something rather than nothing.

Creation is not primarily some distant event; rather, it is the on-going complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns first of all the origin (source of being) of the universe, not its temporal beginning. Thomas thought that, in principle, reason alone cannot conclude definitively as to whether or not the universe had a beginning. He did believe, as a matter of faith (confirmed by the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215), that the universe had a temporal beginning, but for him there is no contradiction in the notion of an eternal, created universe: for were the universe to be without a beginning it still would have an origin, it still would be created, it still would depend upon God for its very existence. Whether the universe is eternal or temporally finite concerns the kind of universe God creates. The fundamental sense of what it means for the world to depend upon God as its cause ought to be distinguished from whether or not what God causes has a beginning. Otherwise, we might be led into the error of thinking that to deny a beginning is to deny that dependence upon God.

It was the genius of Thomas Aquinas to distinguish between creation understood philosophically, with no reference to temporality, and creation understood theologically, which included, among other things, the recognition that the universe does have an absolute temporal beginning.

God’s creative power is exercised throughout the entire course of cosmic history, in whatever ways that history has unfolded. God creates a universe in which things have their own causal agency, their own true self-sufficiency—a nature that is susceptible to scientific analysis. No explanation of cosmological processes, nor biological change for that matter, regardless of how radically random or contingent such an explanation claims to be, challenges the metaphysical account of creation, that is, of the dependence of the existence of all things upon God as cause.


1. Hawking, S. & Mlodinow, L. The Grand Design, New York: Bantam Books (2010): p. 180.
2. ibid., p. 5.
3. This was Hawking’s answer to a query about theology in a television interview in the United States [The Larry King Show on CNN], 10 September 2010.
4. Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe From Nothing. Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, New York: Free Press (2012):
5. Spitzer, R.J. New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans (2010), esp. chap. 5, pp. 177-215.
6. Pope Pius XII, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 22 November 1951.

William E. Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford and member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford. He is the author of Creation and Science; Galileo: Science and Faith; La Creación y las Ciencias Naturales: Actualidad de Santo Tomás de Aquino; and co-author with Steven Baldner of Aquinas on Creation. A longer version of this essay will be published in the April 2012 issue of Science & Christian Belief, and Carroll’s recent lecture on the topic for the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion may be viewed here.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
Merv - #68178

February 21st 2012

Aquinas’ views as portrayed by Dr. Carroll here show that there is nothing remotely new in the perceived (or fabricated) tension between ordinary causation (now called the natural sciences) and Divine causation.  Given the long history it is amusing that secularists are always seeing “Not God” just around the next big corner.  One gets the idea that they think their last gambit to demonstrate “Not God” must have been a failure.  So they plunge on to the next one ... eternal time ... the multiverse ... and on it will go.  Do they ever read any actual history?  or theology?  or anything at all that they frantically flee from?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68204

February 22nd 2012


When called God the First Cause, I think he was following Aristotle.  First Cause is good, but I prefer to all God the Source of all that is.  The problem with First Cause is that it is impersonal, like cause and effect. 

Source in some sense is not necessarily Personal, but it seems to me that when John calls Jesus the Logos of the universe it indicates that the universe is in some sense personal.  Also Jesus is the Truth, which indicates to me that the nature of univferse as well as everything else is found in the Person, Jesus Christ. 

The NT indicates that The Father (Personal) creating through the Logos/Son and the Holy Spirit (both Personal) the universe (impersonal?) which creates life (beginnings of personal) which brings forth humanity (fully personal!). 

The question arises, How is it possible for the impersonal to bring forth the personal.  I would say as indicated by the Antropic Principle that this is not an accident.  Because God is relational, God’s Creation is relational, and because the Creation is relational it can give rise to persons, human beings who are fully relational.  We are created in God’s Image even through mechanisms of the universe because God left the divine relational imprint, structure and form on the universe. 

The universe is relational because it is not monistic or even dualistic.  It is triune in that it is physical, rational, and meaningful.  It was formed by God the Creator through God the Logos by the Holy Spirit.  One God, three Persons.  One universe, three interdependent aspects      

Merv - #68211

February 22nd 2012

I’m glad you’ve got it all figured out, Roger.  I’m not sparring with you over any of this—because even if I was inclined, I know you can tirelessly persist on how non-monistic and non-dualistic our triune universe is.  Besides—who can argue with God and ourselves being relational?  I’ll cheer you on even if I’m not tooting on all the same horns you are.

If your comments were connected with my comment above in some way that eluded me, you may have to state specifically what that responsive connection was.


Chip - #68194

February 22nd 2012

Indeed.  Two things are particularly interesting when reading the stuff put out by the scientism crowd and their supporters in the press.

1) The contrast between the solid confidence of the headline (“it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science”) and the ubiquitous use of hedges and qualifiers that are peppered throughout the “support” for the thesis (my emphasis). 

Perhaps there is some other universe where neutrons are lighter than protons; but we can’t live there, since such a universe might not be able to support life…. This is a picture that has been put together by a number of theoretical physicists over the past couple of decades, although it remains speculative… The laws of quantum cosmology purport to show how nothingness can evolve into the universe we see today. Speculative, yes; crazy, not necessarily…. Whether this ambitious conception is actually correct remains unclear. … The important lesson of “The Grand Design” is not so much the particular theory being advocated but the sense that science [sic] may be able to answer the deep “Why?” questions that are part of fundamental human curiosity…

2) these guys love to denigrate philosophy and theology, and then turn around and employ it (often badly…) when it suits them:   

The universe exists because it must exist; if it didn’t, it would come into existence spontaneously. Once it exists, the combination of quantum mechanics and general relativity coaxes the universe into creating a dizzying variety of regions with different local conditions and physical laws. Most of these might be extremely alien and inhospitable; but some will be just right to allow for the development of complexity and consciousness. Among those, happily, is our own.

Why does the universe exist?  Answer: Because it must. 

If it didn’t, what would happen?  Answer: It would come into existence spontaneously.

How/why have complexity and consciousness developed?  Answer:  Because the combination quantum mechanics and general relativity have “coaxed” the universe into creating one set of conditions which “happily” are “just right” to allow for their development. 

While it’s all very straightforward, I’ll have to apologize for not having nearly enough faith to be an atheist. 

Source of quotations:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704358904575477583868227458.html?mod=WSJ_article_comments#articleTabs=article

HornSpiel - #68262

February 27th 2012

Very entertaining analysis.

beaglelady - #68203

February 22nd 2012

Richard Dawkins will be debating Archbishop Rowan Williams

on  THURSDAY, 23 FEBRUARY 2012, 4.00-5.30PM 

(It’s at Oxford University, so note the time difference! I think England is 5 hours later than Eastern Standard Time)

The topic is “The Nature of Human Beings and the question of their ultimate origin”

You can watch it live here (you’ll see a link) :





HornSpiel - #68263

February 27th 2012

Similarly, it is a mistake to use arguments in cosmology to seek to confirm the doctrine of creation.

Exactly. Thanks for stating in a way I can understand what Thomas Aquinas was saying buy his First Cause argument. I continue to be amazed at the intelligence and relevance of the pre-modern church theologians. I also wonder why intelligent guys like Dr. Craig don’t seem to get it.

David Roemer - #72261

August 29th 2012

The question, “Why is there something, rather than nothing,” comes, I think, from Martin Heidegger who was an atheist and Nazi collaborator. The question asked by Thomas and Gilson is: “Why do finite beings exist?” This is the question that leads to the existence of an infinite being (God in western religions).

 The evidence that God exists is that humans are embodied spirits and the assumption or hope that the universe is intelligible. Evidence that the universe is intelligible is the success of science. The scientific method always explains the questions that humans ask about what they see and hear. But not always. The Big Bang is evidence that God does not exist. 

Page 1 of 1   1