Must Human Evolution Contradict Genesis?

This article first appeared in the July-August 2007 issue of the New Oxford Review, and is reprinted with permission. New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.,

While controversy swirls around whether Intelligent Design theory can somehow indicate God’s existence, we ought not to forget that Catholic tradition has always held that God’s existence can be known by the light of unaided reason, and this, by metaphysical not empirical, scientific argument. Still, even knowing that God exists, many people today fear that there is inherent conflict between the scientific claims of evolutionary theory and the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. Seeking to find a scientific foundation for Genesis, many Christians have embraced the young-earth creationist movement that (1) rejects evolution theory, and (2) insists that mankind is perhaps 6,000 years old and the universe some 10,000 years old – consistent with a literalist reading of the patriarchal genealogies found in the Book of Genesis.

Still, the vast majority of mainstream natural scientists maintain that (1) evolution theory is factual, (2) the cosmos is some 12 to 15 billion years old, (3) life on earth goes back nearly four billion years, and (4) man himself gradually evolved over millions of years. Thus, many Christians today wonder how to reconcile their general acceptance of mainstream science with belief in Adam and Eve’s historicity. While many liberal theologians see little need for Adam and Eve to be a single pair of first parents, authentic Catholics and many traditional Protestants understand that theological monogenism — which holds that all mankind is descended from a single pair of ancestors — must be maintained in order to confirm the reality of Original Sin, and the consequent need for the Redeemer. My book Origin of the Human Species is a philosophical work on evolution in which I offer a detailed explanation of how the current theory of human evolution might be fully consistent with sound scriptural interpretation.

If we don’t know what constitutes genuine human nature, then there is no way to detect when and how true man first appeared. Philosophical psychology is the science that studies human nature and tells us how it distinguishes us from lower brute animals. Animals can experience sensations, such as color, shape, sound, movement, touch, and so forth. Man can do all that, plus he has intellective knowledge and free will. Because man possesses an intellective spiritual soul, he can understand the natures of things, make judgments, and reason. Thus, while animal cognition is forever bound to the singular and concrete sense experiences of its immediate surroundings, human intellective knowledge transcends sensation to grasp the universal truths of the cosmos itself, write poetry, erect civilizations, and investigate science and theology. Man alone consciously reflects on the meaning of his own existence and writes articles about his possible evolutionary origins.

Animals can make tools. Perhaps the most famous example of primate tool-making abilities is the “termite-fishing” chimps reported by Jane Goodall. These clever African primates break off grass reeds and carry them some distance to termite mounds, where incautious termites will crawl onto the reeds inserted into their mounds – quickly becoming food for the chimps. Such behavior, and others like it, though impressive, can be explained in terms of environmental “programming.” The chimps can initially learn the behavior by happy accident followed by habit formation reinforced by the pleasurable outcome. Transmission to the rest of the colony arises from simple imitation. Some anthropologists, including Goodall, appear unaware of widespread animal tool use — for example, sea otters and a Galapagos finch that routinely use rocks to obtain food, spiders that use throw nets, or even the universal propensity of birds to make nests as egg-holding devices.

Especially in the case of primates, large brains and sophisticated external and internal senses can enable higher animals to use sense powers to fashion rudimentary tools. Still, tools whose fashioning is determined by mere usefulness grounded in immediate sensible rewards can arise from such things as trial and error, imagination, memory, and shape recognition. Though impressive, such artifacts need not transcend the abilities of animals lacking intellective powers.

The most intriguing claims for lower primates’ “intelligence” arise from their famed ability to learn sign languages we teach them. But such impressive activities can be explained by the internal senses of instinct, imagination, and memory combined with mechanisms, such as intense training, image association, rapid signing to obtain sensible rewards, unintentional cuing, and unavoidable human influence.

The evidence against animal intellective ability is scarcely debatable. In the wild – without any human influence – brute animals, including lower primates, fail (1) to develop genuine language with ever-increasing vocabulary, (2) to make genuine progress, as is so evident in human society, (3) to show understanding of cause and effect, not merely remembered association of images, and (4) to show knowledge of immaterial objects. This last is manifested in man’s obviously unique understanding of abstract objects in science and religious belief. If lower animals possessed intellect, they should have developed all four of these abilities on their own. Showing none of them proves their lack of true intellect. In Origin of the Human Species, I examine recent ape-language research, offering far more detailed evidence of the preceding claims than present space permits.

While lower primates appear able to fashion rudimentary tools, true humans’ first presence must be evinced by artifacts that intellect alone can produce – objects showing genuine understanding of abstract concepts. In which hominid population might such artifacts be found?

No single scenario for human origins gains total support from all paleoanthropologists. In general, current human evolutionary theory traces back our origins from earlier tree-dwelling stock to the Australopithecines first appearing about four million years ago. The more recent genus Homo is thought to arise about two million years ago and contains sequentially such representatives as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, archaic Homo sapiens, the Neanderthals, the Cro-Magnons, and finally modern man, sometimes designated as Homo sapiens sapiens. Evolutionists reject the notion of a single first true human being. They view human emergence as a gradual process of becoming more intelligent, more self-reflective, and more capable of consciousness – a process called “hominisation.” Clearly, this evolutionary perspective rejects the notion of a single set of first parents.

But man’s intellective soul does not admit of “gradual emergence.” It cannot be only “partially” existent, since between being and non-being there is no middle. The intellect’s exercise may be diminished or even extinguished through brain deficiency or injury, but intellect itself is fully present in every true man.

Fossil skeletal remains do not reveal intellective presence, only reliable evidence of controlled use of fire or intellectively produced artifacts do. Since all signs of controlled use of fire are controversial prior to 150,000 years ago, much older artifact evidence determines the first human presence in the paleological record. I propose that the first unequivocal evidence of intellective activity is found in congruent, three-dimensionally symmetrical later Acheulean stone tools (hand axes). Paleoanthropologists date these to the Middle Pleistocene period – about half a million years ago. Although he might not embrace my philosophical inferences, the hand ax data I describe here is consistent with the empirical findings of anthropologist Thomas Wynn (“Archeology and Cognitive Evolution,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, June 2002). The time line for these sophisticated Acheulean hand axes would associate them with the later Homo erectus population, merging into archaic Homo sapiens. Genuine human beings might have existed earlier, and perhaps we will one day find uncontroversial evidence of their presence, for example, if we were to find even more ancient cave drawings or artistic tools.

Admittedly, stone hand axes exhibiting primitive symmetry date back about 1.4 million years to early Homo erectus. Still, recall that birds can select twigs and straw that they instinctively deem fitting for nest-building, and Goodall’s chimps can pick and fashion grass reeds proper for termite-fishing – without thereby manifesting true intellect.  Early Homo erectus might well have learned through practical experience to fashion rudimentary hand axes with some symmetry, conditioned by their environment to produce tools so shaped for pure utility, such as the need to cut flesh off dead animals. Wynn tells us that such shape-recognition abilities are not beyond the capability of apes. As seen above, apes fail to manifest evidence of intellective ability.

What is peculiar about the Middle Pleistocene sophisticated hand axes of later Homo erectus is that they are not only useful, but aesthetic. They are perfected on all sides, requiring the maker to conceive the geometrical properties on the unseen side that he seeks to perfect on his “working” side. This requires an intellective grasp of geometry and proportion exceeding mere sensible imagination. These half-million-year-old hand axes appear to offer the first unequivocal evidence of genuine intellective activity, indicating the presence of true man with a spiritual intellective soul. Could this then be the population in which Adam appears?

Indeed, later Homo erectus provides an apt subject for such speculation. In height, he averages five-feet-ten-inches tall, and is far more similar anatomically to modern man than any earlier proposed hominids, such as the immediately preceding and much shorter Homo habilis. The Homo erectus cranial capacity ranged from 775 to almost 1,300 cubic centimeters. Some, especially later ones, had larger brains than many people today. While Homo erectus first appeared some two million years ago, recall that the criteria evincing intellective presence does not appear until the Middle Pleistocene period, half a million years ago. If true, something radical happened within this population, transforming it from merely highly sophisticated brute animals into true human beings with spiritual souls.

One cannot overestimate the importance of finding the proper “line of demarcation” between subhuman primates and true man in the quest for Adam and Eve. On the assumption that the current human-evolution theory is essentially correct, such a demarcation line must exist, since we know philosophically that (1) human intellective powers are irreducibly superior to animal sense powers, and (2) the human spiritual soul cannot emerge gradually. Either a given primate is true man or not. Either a spiritual soul is present or not. Some primate must be the first true man, wholly and completely, all at once – even if the fossil and paleological record fails to reveal that critical point of occurrence in time and place. 

Most evolutionists maintain that man is merely a highly developed animal, differing from lower animals in complexity, but not in kind. Naturalistic animal psychologists expect subhuman primates to approach human beings’ mental powers. For them, there really is no first genuinely human being, no Adam. In the other extreme, some Christians, such as astronomer Hugh Ross, trying to defend modern man’s role in Genesis as unique, deny true humanity even to the Neanderthals. Recent cultural evidence has shown that the Neanderthals were true men, possessing symbolic artifacts, burying the dead with religious meaning, and so forth. Still, the fact that there could be doubts about the cultural status of true humans who flourished as little as 32,000 years ago supports my reading of later Homo erectus as possessing intellective souls. The absence of extensive signs of human culture in this Middle Pleistocene population may prove nothing except the fact that those rugged stone hand axes may be the only artifact that easily survives to the present day. Or, as happened with the Neanderthals, further signs of human culture among these later Homo erectus populations may eventually be discovered. Still, does the hypothesized first true man of that Middle Pleistocene population fit the depiction of Adam found in Genesis?

Many are scandalized when they compare the Genesis account to that of the current evolutionary theory and discover what appears to be clearly deviant chronology. Suggesting that the first man might have lived as early as 500,000 years ago appears to fly in the face of the patriarchal genealogy found in Genesis. Genesis 5 and 11 give the genealogies from Adam to Abraham. Adam was 130 years old when he “begot” Seth. Seth begot Enos when he was 105. Enos begot Kenan when he was 90, and so forth. The genealogy gives the age of each patriarch when he begot his offspring, until, finally, Terah begot Abram (Abraham) when he was 70. Added together, the sum from Adam to Abraham is just over 2,000 years. Since we know the time from Abraham to Christ was a little less than 2,000 years, the total time from the present back to Adam must be about 6,000 years – certainly not 500,000 years! The chronology problem appears insurmountable.

But it isn’t. “Begot” need not imply immediate generation of a son or daughter. Matthew 1:8 reads: “And Joram begot Uzzi’ah.” It turns out that Uzzi’ah is not Joram’s son, but his great-great grandson! The most striking case of a genealogy leaving out intermediate names, even where sonship appears explicitly stated, is Matthew 1:1 which reads: “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Most reputable scholars today recognize that the patriarchal genealogies of Genesis give no information as to the true age of mankind, whether it be six thousand or six million years.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#390) tells us how to read Genesis: “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.” As a rigorous standard against which to test the Homo erectus hypothesis proposed above, Origin of the Human Species uses the decisions of the 1909 Biblical Commission. Some of those findings, such as the original happiness of Adam and Eve in a state of justice, integrity, and immortality, the command of obedience, the sin and fall from the state of innocence, and the promise of the Redeemer are not such as to be verifiable in the fossil record or testable against evolution theory. More problematic are the teachings about the special creation of the man, the formation of the first woman from the man, and the unity of the human race.

The “unity of the human race” affirms the teaching of theological monogenism, meaning that from a single pair of first parents, Adam and Eve, all true human beings descended. Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis explicitly rejects the opposing theory of theological polygenism, which maintains that Adam represents a number of individuals who act as first parents, or that after Adam, true men lived on Earth who were not his natural descendants. The “unity of the human race” is what might be called an “indirect” dogma, since it is necessarily presupposed by the doctrine of Original Sin, which affirms that it is a sin committed by an individual man and is a quality found in all men because it has been handed down by descent from Adam. How can monogenism, in its theological meaning of a single pair of first parents, be held in light of evolution theory?

Modern anthropologists use the terms “monogenism” and “polygenism” differently than do Catholic theologians. Today’s anthropologists often mean by “monogenism” that all human races have their origin in a single human species, and by “polygenism” that the races have separate origins. “Monogenetic” can mean just one type, or population, and not necessarily just a single pair of first parents.

Most evolutionists speak in terms of evolving populations, not evolving individuals. They might allow that evolution could pass through a “bottleneck” of a single mating pair, but would insist that such an event is improbable. Today’s major contending theories about human origins are (1) the dominant “single-origin hypothesis,” sometimes called the “Out-of-Africa model” or “replacement hypothesis,” supported by such paleoanthropologists as Donald Johanson and Ian Tattersall, and (2) the presently less-favored “multiregional hypothesis,” whose chief proponent is anthropologist Milford H. Wolpoff. While the “single-origin hypothesis” may entail the modern anthropological meaning of “monogenism,” the fact remains that none of these contending theories envision that we descended from a single pair of first parents. Moreover, both theories maintain that Homo erectus had spread to distant lands long before the Middle Pleistocene period, when the hypothesized Adam would have appeared. Nonetheless, theological monogenism remains plausible, since God has no problem overcoming “improbability.” Evolutionist Teilhard de Chardin points out in his Phenomenon of Man (1959), “At those depths of time when hominisation took place, the presence and the movements of a unique couple are positively ungraspable, unrevealable to our eyes at no matter what magnification.”

Hidden in prehistory’s distant recesses, the radical step from merely sentient animal to intellectively souled man constitutes the creation of a new and higher natural species, but not necessarily a discernible change in morphology. Paleoanthropology would never discover its exact time or place. This new, truly human, primate species might mate only within itself either by natural repugnance to intimate relations with subhuman primates, or through some other indiscernible natural or divinely ordered mechanism of reproductive isolation. Over many thousands of years, this new truly human species, though morphologically almost indistinguishable from older subhuman hominids, might gradually replace them in virtue of its intellective superiority – leaving no evidence of the earlier form’s extinction. The scientist notes only wide geographic distribution of the newer artistic form of hand ax, as well as other signs of behavior unseen before, such as hunting, not just scavenging, of large animals, and an early form of hunter-gathering.

Respecting the “special creation of man,” nothing prevents God from directly creating Adam from the “slime of the earth” in most literal biblical manner, an event totally escaping modern scientific observation. Still, Cyril Vollert suggests in his Symposium on Evolution (1959) that evolution theory might integrate with Scripture if God directly infused the human spiritual soul into a fully adult subhuman primate. Such transformation would instantly change the entire material organization of that primate into true man. Vollert also proposes that this radical change might have taken place at the embryonic level. In that case, subhuman primates would not be the real parents of Adam, since his direct creation as a human being, though using evolved embryonic material principles, would be the work of God, who alone can create the spiritual human soul as well as raise matter to the level of this qualitatively higher new species. Even subhuman primates might readily rear such “offspring” as their own. This new species could then separate from the prior subhuman stock in the manner described above.

The “formation of the first woman from the man” poses a greater challenge, if we are to take an evolutionary perspective and attempt a real material connection to Adam. Again, God could have taken Eve from an adult Adam’s rib in most literal fashion. Still, since the Hebrew word sela can also mean “side,” a more creative, evolutionary scenario might be proposed – one based on Vollert’s hypothesis of embryonic transformation. Monozygotic twinning might have occurred immediately following Adam’s formation. Save in the rarest of instances, such twinning produces siblings of the same sex. God might have foreordained that an almost unique “XXY” zygote form monozygotic boy/girl twins by one of the twins dropping the extra “X” chromosome and the other twin dropping the extra “Y” chromosome. Or else, by unseen direct divine intervention, a “Y” chromosome is changed into an “X” chromosome in the twin that becomes Eve. In the miracle of the Virgin Birth in which Mary begets her Divine Son, it appears that an “X” chromosome must have been transformed into a “Y” chromosome — in order that a male Savior be born. The process of begetting Eve might have entailed a “reverse” foreshadowing of the miracle that was to bring mankind its Redeemer.

Some of these speculations that attempt to reconcile current human evolution theory with authoritative Church interpretation of Genesis challenge the imagination. Still, Origin of the Human Species offers what may be the most detailed effort to fulfill that task without offending science, reason, or Scripture. Some may prefer other alternatives, such as (1) rejecting evolution in favor of young-earth creationism, or (2) raising the possibility that anatomically modern humans might have been contemporaries of their supposed evolutionary ancestors. Michael A. Cremo and Richard L. Thompson’s book Forbidden Archeology (1993) documents evidence of this latter alternative. The present enquiry does not seek to address the merits of these other proposals.
Adam and Eve’s historical reality remains an essential preamble to Christian faith. The preceding philosophical analysis of current human evolutionary theory’s interface with legitimate scriptural interpretation demonstrates that intelligent, well-educated, reasonable Christians even today have good cause to believe those fundamental truths revealed by God in the first three chapters of Genesis.

How “Creation” Implies God


The Background to the Problem

There is nothing very new about the thesis of this article—for many proofs that God is Creator of all finite things have already been attempted—often with great success. Moreover, we know as an article of Catholic faith that the existence of God can be known with certainty by the light of natural human reason.1 Yet, what may be somewhat novel about this article is not its intent, but rather that it will attempt to prove God’s existence by means of a series of diverse considerations about the very meaning of the term ‘creation’. Moreover, it shall examine certain presumptions about creation which have been made by atheists, i.e., by those who deny the very conclusion which is presently being sought.

Now it belongs to the very essence of any self-respecting atheist to deny that the world is created by God. And yet, this very observation, namely, that the atheist feels called upon to deny the reality of creation, is itself significant—so much so, that this curiously universal reaction of atheism shall serve as the very point of departure for our investigation.

Astronomer Robert Jastrow has commented upon the strange situation now confronting his fellow astronomers (many of whom appear to be scientific materialists). Jastrow observes, “…I am fascinated by some strange developments going on in astronomy—partly because of their religious implications and partly because of the peculiar reactions of my colleagues.”2

Jastrow proceeds to explain the enigma confronted by modem scientists:

The essence of the strange developments is that the Universe had, in some sense, a beginning—that it began at a certain moment in time, and under circumstances that seem to make it impossible—not just now—but ever—to find out what force or forces brought the world into being at that moment…. the astronomical evidence proves that the Universe was created twenty billion years ago in a fiery explosion, and in the searing heat of that first moment, all the evidence needed for a scientific study of the cause of the great explosion was melted down and destroyed.3

For centuries, atheistic materialists had blandly assumed the eternity of the world while denigrating the peculiarly Judeo-Christian belief of creation in time as a vestige of religious mythology. Science seemed squarely in the atheist’s comer until the recent advent of the Big Bang theory—a theory whose scientific underpinnings now seem to grow increasingly secure.4 Small wonder, then, the “peculiar reactions” of many astronomers, as noted’ by Jastrow! What he refers to are the efforts made by many of his fellow scientists to ignore and refute the mounting evidence in favor of the Big Bang.

Jastrow describes the situation thus:

Theologians generally are delighted with the proof that the Universe had a beginning, but astronomers are curiously upset. Their reactions provide an interesting demonstration of the response of the scientific mind—supposedly a very objective mind—when evidence uncovered by science itself leads to a conflict with the articles of faith in our profession. It turns out that the scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence. We become irritated, we pretend the conflict does not exist, or we paper it over with meaningless phrases.5

The reactions to the possibility of a Big Bang began shortly after World War I—and from a rather surprising quarter:

Around this time, signs of irritation began to appear among the scientists. Einstein was the first to complain. He was disturbed by the idea of a Universe that blows up, because it implied that the world had a beginning.6

It is not here suggested that Einstein and all others who opposed the Big Bang theory were atheists. Certainly, Einstein himself appears to have embraced the conception of God propounded by Spinoza.7

And yet, conversely, it is manifestly evident that scientific materialists would be in the forefront of those astronomers who would feel uncomfortable in the face of a new theory which seemed to challenge their most fundamental convictions. While it is not suggested that the physical theory of the Big Bang necessarily implies the theological doctrine of creation, nonetheless it is quite understandable that even the appearance of such an implication should cause more than a ripple of resistance among those both philosophically and scientifically indisposed to the notion of creation in time. Yet, we shall see that our concern in this paper will extend to a much broader notion of creation—a notion not restricted merely to that of “having a beginning in time.”The Problem

The central question which this article seeks to address is simply the age old puzzle: “Why does anything exist at all?”8 The believer immediately responds with a simple affirmation of his faith: “Things exist because God exists to make them.” But the atheist is driven to the logical alternative of insisting on the aseity of the Universe: “Things simply explain their own existence; their very fact of existing is its own explanation. Moreover, the Universe has always existed in some form or other, and hence, needs no God to have created it.” Some atheists and agnostics attack the principle of explanation itself, suggesting that not everything may need a sufficient reason or that, perhaps, the principle is limited in scope to the observable phenomena.

Examples of these positions are not difficult to find. The problem as to why things exist at all is clearly posed by Kai Nielsen (who is himself an atheist):

Indeed, “Why is there anything at all?” is an odd question, but in certain philosophical and perhaps even religious moods it is natural to ask: Why is it that any of the things that make up the universe actually exist? They do, of course, but why is this so? There might have been nothing at all!9

Or again, as F.E. Copleston put it in his famous 1948 British Broadcasting Corporation debate with Bertrand Russell:

Well, I can’t see how you can rule out the legitimacy of asking the question how the total, or anything at all comes to be there. Why something rather than nothing, that is the question?10

John Hospers puts succinctly the theistic response (not that he holds it himself) to the given existence of the world:

Why, indeed, does any universe at all exist—why is there a universe at all rather than simply nothing? For this you have no explanation at all. But I do. I hold that there is a necessary being, God, and that since he exists necessarily all contingent existents (and that includes everything in the universe) owe their existence to this necessary being and are explained by the fact that this necessary being exists.11

But in a contrary response to this same most basic question, as Roy Wood Sellars puts it,”…the modem materialist stresses the aseity as against the contingence notion of creationalism.”12

The meaning for the materialist of this “aseity” is put with clarity by Nielsen: “…all other realities, if such there be, depend for their existence on these physical realities, but these physical realities do not depend on any other realities for their own existence.”13

Hospers elucidates in his own manner the claim that the universe simply explains itself and needs no further explanation:

…this is just a “brute fact”—the universe has such-and-such laws, and if those are ultimate (underived), we can’t derive them from any other ones….If we have once arrived at a basic or underived law (not that we ever know that we have), then it is self-contradictory to ask for an explanation of it.14

What Hospers means here is that the ultimate laws of the universe, by definition as ultimate, require no further explanation. They are self-explanatory.

Again, Anthony Flew challenges the position that God is any greater an intelligible explanation of the universe that is the universe itself:

No reason whatever has yet been given for considering that God would be an inherently more intelligible ultimate that—say—the most fundamental laws of energy and stuff; much less for postulating the actual existence of such a further and extraordinary entity, instead of somehow contenting yourself with the alternative idea that the world we know is—in the vertical dimension-not dependent on anything else, and that it is also, in some state or other, probably eternal and without beginning.15

The atheistic alternative explanation to claiming that the universe is its own explanation, is the claim that not everything needs an explanation. That is to say, the principle of sufficient reason itself is attacked. Again Nielsen puts the case succinctly:

It would only follow that there is a necessary being if it were true that there is a complete explanation that would give us an adequate explanation of why anything exists at all. Why should we assume or even believe that we actually have such an explanation?

It is certainly very natural to reject the principle of sufficient reason and to say that it has not been established that there must be or even that there is (if only we could discover it) an explanation for everything. Some events or states of affairs may never be explained. There may even be some things that are inexplicable.16

Now it is not the intended task of this paper to reiterate and refute the monumental errors of idealism and process philosophy which provide the most substantive attacks on the principles of sufficient reason and causality. Those who sincerely seek the most exhaustive and convincing defense of these principles are referred to Garrigou-Lagrange’s classical treatment in the latter part of the first volume of God: His Existence and Nature.17 Suffice it for our purpose to point out that it seems a bit hypocritical that scientific materialists should ultimately retreat behind a denial of rational principles when it is they who dare to mock all others as being “irrational” and “unscientific.” It is indeed curious that those who demand a scientific explanation for everything should, in this singular instance, fail to see the need for any explanation whatever! One cannot but compare such selective abandonment of rational principles to the curious biological doctrine that spontaneous generation never occurs except, of course, when the evolutionist has need of it in order to initiate evolution itself!

In the end, the consensus of atheists and theists who address the basic question of existence, as well as the dictates of right reason, present the following stark alternatives: Either God (the Infinite Being) exists, or else, the world (all finite being) explains itself, or else, not all things have full explanations. It is our contention that the latter two alternates are not only absurd, but impossible.“Creation” as Expression of Infinite Power

Thus we see that, for those scientific materialists who do not opt for the intellectually suicidal denial of reason, the universe must be conceived as self-existent. Moreover, these atheistic materialists clearly accept the metaphysical principle that “…from nothing, nothing comes to be, “18 since they universally deny that the cosmos had an absolute beginning in time. Thereby they implicitly acknowledge that a universe which just “pops into” existence (out of no pre-existent state) is not only absurd, but impossible.

While it is evident that the natural intuition of the laws of being would require every intellect to affirm that being (the world) can only come from pre-existent being (a prior state of the world, or God), why is it the case that the reason of virtually every man, theist and atheist alike, sees in the notion of instantaneous creation of the world (ex nihilo et utens nihilo) the exclusive mark of divinity itself? With but a modicum of metaphysical reflection, the human mind—theist and atheist alike—grasps that the act of creation is intelligible only as an expression of power, infinite power. And it is precisely this manifestation of power without measure which commands intellectual assent to the existence of God (in the traditional meaning of the term) as the sole adequate explanation or foundation for such power.19 The average person who considers the matter will express the insight as follows: “To make something out of nothing can only be the act of an infinitely powerful being, God.” The professional theologian or philosopher will render this insight with greater precision by saying: “That something should come to be while presupposing no pre-existent matter or subject requires the infinite power of God.” In each case what is affirmed is the absolute need for unlimited power as the only adequate explanation for the universe beginning to be in time. Yet the question remains, “How can we be so certain that the ‘popping into existence’ of the world requires the existence of an all-powerful God?” Is this inference simply the product of a primordial insight or intuition which is, at root, rationally indefensible? Are we ultimately reduced to a form of fideism here?

Suffice it to note that, if this be fideism, the atheist must suffer it as well—given his absolute denial that creation in time is possible!Why Creation Requires Infinite Power

While there appears to exist a nearly universal intuitive recognition that the act of creating requires the infinite power of a Supreme Being, the attempt to give intellectual justification to this primordial insight is fraught with difficulty. For even if one grants that the existence of the world had an absolute beginning in time and that this beginning must have an adequate explanation, it is not at once clear precisely why this phenomenon requires an infinitely powerful cause.

Is it because being infinitely transcends non-being? But then, the being of the world is itself only finite.20 Perhaps, alternatively, one should focus upon the fact that between non-being and being there is no middle ground. Hence the act which transcends this “gap” between non-being and being must be considered as literally immeasurable. Yet, no reputable thinker would dare to refer to a real relation between non-being and being—since a real relation always requires two real terms, and non-being is not real.21 Hence, the metaphors about “transcending an infinite gap” from non-being to being begin to sound suspiciously poetic or mystical.

It is necessary to turn to the Common Doctor of the Church for illumination of a precise, scientific conception of exactly why creation requires infinite power. The following is neither poetry nor mysticism:

It must be said that the power of the maker is measured not only from the substance of the thing made but also from the way of its making; for a greater heat not only heats more, but also heats more swiftly. Thus, although to create some finite effect does not demonstrate infinite power, nevertheless to create it from nothing does demonstrate infinite power…. For if a greater power is required in the agent insofar as the potency is more remote from the act, it must be that the power of an agent (which produces) from no presupposed potency, such as a creating agent does, would be infinite; because there is no proportion of no potency to some potency, as is presupposed by the power of a natural agent, just as there is no proportion of non-being to being.22

The principle which St. Thomas employs here is laid down when he says, “…a greater power is required in the agent insofar as the potency is more remote from the act…” For as power means the ability to produce being or to act, its measure is taken not merely from the effect produced but also from the proportion between what is presupposed by the agent in order to produce the effect and the effect produced. Thus, to make a chicken from pre-existing chickens requires a certain measure of power. But to produce a chicken from merely vegetative life would require even greater power; and to produce a chicken from non-living matter yet greater power. But to produce a chicken while presupposing no pre-existent matter at all clearly would require immeasurably greater power. It is immeasurable, as St. Thomas points out, precisely because”…there is no proportion of non-being to being.”

Note that this argument does not rest upon an attempt to measure any supposed infinite relation between non-being and being. Rather, it is precisely the absolute lack of any relation whatever between non-being and being which demands an infinite power to create. For it is precisely the proportion of the potency to act which is measurable. The greater the distance (not physical distance, but remoteness or distinction in existence) between the potentiality and its act, the greater the power needed to actualize that potency. But such a proportion between some presupposed potentiality and its act is always measurable (in some sense), and therefore, is finite—since it is of the essence of the measurable to be finite and since a thing is measured only by its limits. But where there is no proportion, as between non-being and being, there can be no measure, and thus, no limit.23 The power required in that case knows no measure and no limit. It is therefore infinite.

Thus we have the rational explanation for the universal metaphysical intuition that it would require infinite power to create ex nihilo.The True Meaning of “Creation”

If it were necessary to prove creation of the world in time in order to demonstrate the existence of God, it appears that such a task could never be accomplished by unaided natural reason. For even the most famous Christian apologist for God’s existence, St. Thomas Aquinas, concedes that reason alone cannot prove creation in time: it is simply an article of Catholic faith which is neither contrary to, nor demonstrable by, natural reason.24

In fact, according to St. Thomas, the world could well have existed from all eternity—and yet it would still be a creature of God.25 One of his famous Five Ways to prove God’s existence, the Third Way, presupposes this very possibility in the logic of its argumentation.26 Thus, our belief in creation in time is just that—a matter of reasonable Christian belief.

The point of all this is simply to observe that, for St. Thomas, the notion of creation is quite distinct from the notion of beginning in time. After all, on the very supposition of an eternally existent God, could one deny the possibility that such a Being may have been creating the world from all eternity? And would not such a world be a creature in virtue of its being an effect of God despite its beginningless duration? In such a case, creation would be an ongoing production of the being of the world by God-with absolutely no reference to a beginning in time.

Moreover, grant that God did create the world in time. What then would be the relationship of the world to God in the next instant after the moment of creation? Or the next day, or year, or twenty billion years? Could God cease causing the world and yet the world continue to exist? Certainly not. For, as St. Thomas observes, “With the cause ceasing, the effect ceases.”27 Creation must not be conceived as a once and for all time act. God must continue to create, or else, the cosmos would at once fall back into the nothingness from which it came.28 St. Thomas refers to this continued act of creation as “conservation.”29

In other words, a proper understanding of the term “creation” is conceptually distinct from the notion of “beginning in time.” For St. Thomas, the world is created, not because it began in time, but because of its radical dependence on the Supreme Being during every moment of its existence—past, present, or future.

We are thus left with three alternatives regarding the existence of the world: Either it came to be in time—thereby requiring an infinitely powerful Creator, or else, it has existed from all eternity as the created effect of that Creator, or else, it has existed from all eternity without the causation of such a Creator.

On the first two suppositions, the existence of an infinitely powerful God is at once granted and this investigation is ended. But it is the third alternative which now requires closer scrutiny.

For the existence of the world is itself an act whose being demands some explanation. Existence is an act. It is the very first act of any substance.30 And no substance is explained unless and until its substantial existence has been accounted for. Thus we may properly inquire as to the explanation of the existence of this finite world in which we find ourselves.

When we inquire as to the explanation or sufficient reason for a supposedly uncaused finite universe, it becomes at once clear that the need for some foundation in an infinitely powerful being is not escaped. For, just as there is no pre-existing potency for such a world which is created in time, so too, there is no pre-existing potency against which to measure the actually existing universe even if it has always existed (as atheists insist). Hence, its existential foundation, even if this not be conceived a cause outside its own being, must manifest a power which knows no measure, i.e., it is infinite.

To put the matter in other terms, the power required to explain a being (or beings) is not dependent on whether that being is an effect (whether or not such effect happens to be produced in time). Rather, such power must be measured in terms of its being the reason why there is being rather than non-being. And, as St. Thomas points out, “…there is no proportion of non-being to being.”31 Hence, the power requisite to explain the existence of the cosmos knows no measure—whether it began in time or not. Immeasurable or infinite power is needed to explain any existence at all—of anything.

But the world is clearly finite—since space and time are the limiting modes of material existence.32 And since the finite clearly cannot contain the infinite power needed to explain its own existence it is evident that an infinite Being must exist.Some Final Reflections

It may well be suspected that the foregoing demonstration of God’s existence is simply a variation of St. Thomas’ Third Way of the Summa Theologiae, I, q. 2, a. 3, c., or else, perhaps, the argument which many have abstracted from his proof for God’s eternity which is presented in the Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 15. Yet it should at once be evident that neither of these demonstrations proceed from the same starting point as the present analysis. For both of the aforementioned texts of St. Thomas take as their initial data the existence of things which are possible to be or not to be.33 But the present argument proceeds neither from the possibility nor from the necessity of the world—merely from its existence and from the need for a sufficient reason for said existence. If it were possible for the world to be its own reason for existing, then there would be no need to posit the existence of a transcendent God. It is only when it is shown that the existence of anything at all requires infinite power that it becomes evident that the finite cosmos necessarily requires an Infinitely Powerful Being as the only adequate explanation of its existence. Hence, the present argument proceeds, not from the possible, as such, but from an analysis of the creative power implicit in any being whatever—whether it be possible or necessary, finite or infinite. It is the factual existence of things which is at issue here, not their indifference to existence.

But it is precisely that indifference to existence manifested by the possibles which St. Thomas uses to prove their causal dependence. As he puts it in the context of the Contra Gentiles:

Everything however which is possible to exist has a cause, since it is from itself equally (related) to two (contraries), namely, existence and non-existence. (Therefore) it must be, if it appropriates to itself existence, that this is from some cause.34

Again, the same point is made in the Third Way when St. Thomas insists “…that which is not does not begin to be, except through something which exists.”35

In both these cases, again, St. Thomas reveals the causal dependence of the possibles. But the present proof seeks not to reveal causal dependence except as incidental to the need for infinite power as the sole adequate foundation for all existents. Perhaps the point of this could be more adequately expressed by saying that God Himself, Who is absolutely uncaused, nonetheless requires infinite power in order to render His own existence intelligible. That is why St. Thomas’ task in the aforementioned contexts differs from that of the present article.


In conclusion, the intellectual exploration completed in this article entails the following central points:

First, it was established that there exists, either explicitly or implicitly, among theists and atheists alike, a universal intellectual recognition that the theological notion of an absolute beginning in time of the world entails a creatio ex nihilo whose sole adequate explanation would be an Infinitely Powerful Being, or God in the traditional sense of the term.

Second, the concept of “creation” itself was scrutinized in such fashion as to reveal that it may be properly abstracted from any notion of “beginning in time” –thereby demonstrating that the mere existence of any being whatsoever entails the presence of an act (esse) which requires infinite power to be posited “outside of nothingness.” (The central metaphysical task of this article has been to establish the philosophically scientific validity of this second step.)

Third and lastly, it was seen that such infinite power clearly cannot reside in any finite being and, therefore, it is absolutely necessary to admit the existence of an Infinitely Powerful Creator as the sole adequate explanation of the finite world.36


1. “See Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum, n. 1806.

2. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1978), p. 11.

3. Ibid., pp. 11-12. Scientists today pursue the vision of Grand Unified Theories which attempt to unify the fundamental forces of nature as different aspects of the same force. Senior physicist in the Argonne National Laboratory’s High Energy Physics Division, David S. Ayres, remarks that the “Grand Unified Theories offer detailed insight into the processes which occurred at the instant of creation-the firey ‘big bang’ of twenty billion years ago.” Argonne News, May/June, 1984, pp. 8-9.

4. See ibid., pp. 14-16. The 1965 discovery of the apparently vestigial fireball radiation of the Big Bang by Amo Penzias and Robert Wilson of the Bell Laboratories has left the theory, at the present time, with “no competitors” according to Jastrow.

5. Ibid., p. 16.

6. Ibid., p. 27. Such aprioristic reactions by the scientific community are at least somewhat akin to the academic “witch-hunt” conducted by presumably “objective” scientists against the “outrageous” theories proposed by Immanuel Velikovsky. So irrational and bitter was the reaction in this latter case that it elicited extensive analysis by behavioral scientists. See The Velikovsky Affair: The Warfare of Science and Scientism, ed. by Alfred de Grazia (New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1966).

7. Ibid., p. 28.

8. In one of human intellectual history’s less ingenuous moments, Karl Marx simply refuses to grant intellectual legitimacy to any question put to the very existence of the world. He labels such inquiry”…perverse…” since it implies”…the inessentiality of nature and of man …. ” Marx insists that for socialism “…the real existence of man and nature has become practical, sensuous and perceptible…” and hence such a question “…has become impossible in practice.” See Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1961), pp. 112-114.

9. Kai Nielsen, Reason and Practice: A Modern Introduction to Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971), p. 180.

10. “A Debate on the Existence of God: Bertrand Russell and F.E. Copleston” as reprinted in The Existence of God, edited by John Hick (London: The Macmillan Company, 1964), p. 175.

11. John Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 2nd edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1967), p. 440.

12. “The New Materialism” by Roy Wood Sellars as found in A History of Philosophical Systems, edited by Vergilius Ferm (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1950), Ch. 33, p. 425.

13. Kai Neilsen, op. cit., p. 334.

14. John Hospers, op. cit., p. 442.

15. Anthony Flew, God: A Critical Enquiry (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1984), p. 96.

16. Kai Neilsen, op. cit., p. 18!.

17. See Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, God: His Existence and His Nature (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1934), p. 181-194.

18. “…ex nihilo nihil fit.…” St. Thomas Aquinas, In I Phys., 14, n. 2. Marietti ed.

19. In point of fact, in God His very essence is identical with His infinite power by reason of the divine simplicity. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 3, a.7.

20. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 7, aa. 2, 3 and 4.

21. See ibid., q. 13, a. 7, c. Here St. Thomas refers to the merely logical character of the “… relations which are between being and non-being, which reason forms, insofar as it apprehends non-being as a certain extreme.” “… relationibus quae sunt inter ens et non ens, quas format ratio, inquantum apprehendit non ens ut quoddam extremum.” Ottawa ed. See also Bernard Wuellner, S.l., Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1956).

22. “Dicendum quod virtus facientis non solum consideratur ex substantia facti, sed etiam ex modo faciendi; maior enim calor non solum magis, sed etiam citius calefacit. Quamvis igitur creare aliquem effectum finitum non demonstret potentiam infinitam, tamen creare ipsum ex nihilo demonstrat potentiam infinitam …. Si enim tanto maior virtus requiritur in agente, quanta potentia est magis remota ab actu, oportett quod virtus agentis ex nulla praesupposita potentia, quale agens est creans. sit infinita; quia nulla proportio est nullius potentiae ad aliquam potentiam, quam praesupponit virtus agentis naturalis, sicut non entis ad ens.” Ibid., q. 45, a. 5, ad 3 .. Ottawa ed.

23. Note well that St. Thomas does not argue from the remoteness of the potency from the act in the case of creation. Rather, he considers the….. proportion of no potency to some potency…”—for a creating agent presupposes no potency whereas a natural agent always presupposes some potency. He observes that there exists no such proportion just as… there is no proportion of non-being to being.” A fortiori, the remoteness of no potency to the act of already created being becomes even more immeasurable (if that were possible).

24. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 46, aa. I, 2, and 3; De Potentia Dei, q. 3, aa. 14 and 17. See also, On the Eternity of the World, translated by Cyril Vollert, S.J. (Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 1964), pp. 2-73.

25. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 46, a. 2, ad. I. See also, Etienne Gilson, The Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York and Toronto: The New American Library, 1963), p. 214.

26. See Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, translated by L.K. Shook (New York: Random House, 1956), pp. 69-70. See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 13, where St. Thomas insists ï…. that the most efficacious way to prove God to exist is not on the supposition of the newness of the world but rather on the supposition of the eternity of the world.” “…. quod via efficacissima ad probandum Deum esse, est ex suppositione novitatis mundi, non autem sic, ex suppostitione aeternitatis mundis …. ” Leonine ed.

27. “Cessante causa, cess at effectus.” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 96, a. 3, ob. 3. Ottawa ed. Also, in the Second Way of his famous Five Ways to prove God’s existence, St. Thomas insists that “… removing however the cause, the effect is removed …. ” “…remota autem causa, removetur effectus …. ” Summa Theologiae, I, q. 2, a. 3, c. Ottawa ed.

28. See ibid., q. 104, a. I.

29. “It must be said that the conservation of things by God is not through some new action, but through a continuation of that action by which He gives existence, which action is indeed without motion and time.” “Dicendum quod conservatio rerum a Deo non est per aliquam novam actionem, sed per continuationem actionis qua dat esse, quae quidem actio est sine motu et tempore.” Summa Theologiae, I, q. 104, a. I, ad 4. Ottawa ed.

30. See ibid., q. 4, a. I, ad 3. See also, Etienne Gilson, op. cit., p. 134.

31. Ibid., q. 45, a. 5, ad 3.

32. See note 19 above.

33. For an analysis and comparison of the starting points and development of these two arguments by St. Thomas see my monograph, Aquinas’ Proofs for God’s Existence (The Hague: Martinus-Nijhoff, 1972), p. 129 ff.

34. “Omne autem quod est possibile esse, causam habet; quia quum de se aequaliter se habeat ad duo, scilicet esse et non-esse, oportet, si ei approprietur esse, quod hoc sit ex aliqua causa.” Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 15. Leonine ed.

35. “… quod non est, non incipit esse nisi per aliquid quod est.” Summa Theologiae, I, q. 2, a. 3, c. Ottawa ed.

36. The notion of “explanation” does not necessarily denote exterior causality. Note that, while every being requires a sufficient reason, only those beings whose sufficient reason for existing is not totally within themselves would require an extrinsic sufficient reason or cause.

This article was first published in Faith & Reason, 11:3-4 (1985), 250-63. Permission to print kindly granted by Christendom Educational Corporation, Christendom College, Front Royal, Virginia, 22630.

Did Darwin Prove Genesis a Fairy Tale?

Copyright © 2007/Dennis Bonnette. This article first appeared in the Social Justice Review (September-October, 2007), 98:7-8.

Darwinian naturalism drives a two-pronged stake into the heart of Christianity: First, it insists that Adam and Eve’s story is but a fairy tale, and second, it denies God any role in the emergence and development of living forms. Without Adam and Eve, there can be no Original Sin, no Fall, no need or promise of a Redeemer, no Christ. The entire theological order is destroyed. And, if God plays no role in life’s creation, need He exist at all? It is small wonder that many Christians reject evolution theory as unscriptural and even unscientific. Still, most of the scientific world embraces Darwinian evolution as the only rational way to understand the evident fossil pattern of descent with modification.

My philosophical book Origin of the Human Species (Sapientia Press, 2003), while also treating of many other topics concerning evolution, shows in significant detail how the current theory of human evolution might be entirely compatible with sound science and legitimate Scriptural interpretation. I maintain that belief in Adam and Eve is both scientifically and philosophically credible – even if one does not subscribe to “young-Earth” creationism, which asserts that the world and man were created by God within the last ten thousand years or so.

Most conventional scientists embrace a worldview in which the universe is 10 to 15 billion years old, life on Earth dates back some 3.8 billion years, and man is the end product of a gradual evolutionary process taking place over millions of years. Still, many Christians today wonder whether these conventional scientific claims are rationally compatible with legitimate Scriptural interpretation and sound theology. Darwinian naturalism, as found in Richard Dawkins’s book The Blind Watchmaker (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), insists that materialistic mechanisms alone are responsible for origin and development of life.

Darwinian naturalism is not based solely on scientific data, but also on gratuitous atheistic assumptions, which preclude God’s creation of the world or any possible subsequent divine intervention in its unfolding processes. The book Darwin on Trial, by Phillip E. Johnson (Regnery Gateway, 1991), eloquently exposes this philosophical fallacy inherent in naturalism. Christian thinkers, such as Johnson, maintain that God does exist, and that His continued creative act sustains the natural operations of all finite things, including the biochemistry that is central to any evolutionary process. Naturalism arbitrarily excludes this crucial claim.

The Catholic intellectual’s decisive edge in discussing evolution rests upon the rational certitude that God exists, whether evolution be true or false. Today, even many Catholics appear unaware that the First Vatican Council’s solemn definition that God’s existence can “be known with certainty in the light of human reason by those things which have been made.” St. Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways retain their validity, when they are understood in context and with the necessary metaphysical preparation. Philosopher and theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, in his book God: His Existence and His Nature (B. Herder Book Co., 1934) wrote what remains the classical exposition and defense of the Quinque Viae. Garrigou-Lagrange occupies nearly two-thirds of Volume One in refuting the epistemological and metaphysical errors of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, various process philosophers and their like – thereby establishing a proper intellectual foundation for the arguments. My book, Aquinas’ Proofs for God’s Existence (Martinus-Nijhoff, 1972), provides perhaps the most thorough defense of the impossibility of infinite causal regress, a key premise of the Five Ways. While space prevents more elaborate development here, the fact that Catholic philosophers already know that God exists before addressing the problem of evolution offers an enormous advantage, denied to those who struggle against evolution theory as if their entire faith depended on proving conventional science wrong.

Darwinists today claim that life arose spontaneously from non-life and that descent with modification gives rise to new species through random mutations and survival of the fittest. Speaking through the mouths of leading evolutionists themselves, the philosopher Larry Azar, in his book Evolution and Other Fairy Tales (AuthorHouse, 2005), exposes the massive confusion and contradiction existing among those evolutionists. While the very title of Darwin’s famed Origin of Species appears to affirm the existence of “species,” it turns out that Darwin himself believed only in accidental variations between organisms, and that the term “species” is really only an artificial term, made for convenience.

Darwin’s disciples do no better. Some insist that species have real existence in nature, while others deny to species any extra-mental reality, and insist that only individual organisms exist in nature. Contemporary biologists, such as Ernst Mayr, reject the traditional “biological species concept” based on evident morphology, and replace this with notions based on a population system that can inter-breed and have “reproductive isolation” against others. In Darwinian logic, it appears that there really is no extra-mental basis for species. “Species” become mere terms of convenience describing mid-ranges of ever-blending series of unique individuals.

Mayr conceded the need to move past empirical terms, like “phenotypic, morphological, genetic, phylogenetic, or biological” in order to get to the “underlying philosophical concepts,” if we are to have a proper understanding of the “species problem.” (Mayr, The Species Problem [American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1957], p. 17) The “philosophical natural species concept” is directed to those properties of organisms which are not accidental, but essential. Traditional philosophy holds that things are diversified essentially by the presence or absence of certain powers and their activities. Thus, vegetative life is essentially superior to non-living things because plants possess the powers of nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Animals are superior to plants because they possess various sense powers, whereas plants do not. And man is superior to animals because he possesses intellective powers absent in brute animals. The biological species concept addresses accidental differences, whereas the philosophical species concept deals with essence itself. Unless evolution, transcending natural philosophical species, can be demonstrated, all examples of evolution may serve merely to document intra-specific evolution. True evolution would have to show that a plant became an animal or that an animal became a man.

Traditional philosophy holds that man possesses intellective powers that make him essentially superior to lower primates. On the other hand, most evolutionists maintain that man is merely a highly-developed animal, differing in complexity from lower animals, but not in kind. Naturalistic animal psychologists expect subhuman primates to approach human beings’ mental powers — witness the recent interest in ape-language research, with its claims that gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and other subhuman primates can be taught various forms of sign language. These animals are claimed to understand the meanings of hundreds of words, to form sentences, and to communicate with humans and among themselves. Many people infer from these claims that man himself is no longer preeminent in the animal kingdom, that mankind is just another animal species, and that the belief that God made man in His own image and gave him dominion over lower creatures is merely an archaic religious fairy tale.

But still, philosophical analysis reveals (1) that genuine language requires intellective knowledge, and (2) that subhuman primates will never have true linguistic ability. The crucial distinction between sense and intellect eludes materialists who try to explain animal and human behavior. While man has both sense and intellective knowledge, animals possess only sensation. Intellective knowledge is specific to the human spiritual soul. Man employs his intellect to (1) form abstract concepts, (2) make judgments, and (3) reason in logical fashion from premises to conclusions. Lower animals’ sense powers, including imagination and sense memory, permit them to (1) manipulate sense data, and (2) instinctively exercise innate natural signs in order to communicate. These sense powers even enable animals to learn from man the use of arbitrary signs invented by man. And yet, brute animals do not understand the meanings of the signs that they use. Nor do they form judgments. Nor do they engage in reasoning. All ape behavior, including the trained use of signs, is focused on immediate sensible rewards, such as sex, toys, food, or contact with other animals. Abstract purposes, such as studying philosophy or earning a pay increase or dedicating one’s life to God, are meaningless to apes and elicit no signing activity.

Even some natural scientists who are evolutionists and experts on ape-language research have concluded that apes do not possess true language. They argue that such behavior can be explained by non-linguistic mechanisms, such as (1) simple imitation, (2) the “Clever Hans effect” (unintentional cuing), (3) the anthropomorphic fallacy (the error of attributing human qualities to animals based on the impulse to put ourselves in the brute’s place), and (4) rapid non-syntactical signing that seeks immediate sensible rewards. Two important claims – (1) that apes combine signs into new, creative sequences, and (2) that apes know syntactic structure – have been found to be based upon anecdotal data and not upon acceptable scientific methodology. Computers, moreover, which actually understand nothing and are not even alive, can imitate human linguistic behavior simply by manipulating data. Apes, with threir relatively large brains and elaborate sense faculties, can also accomplish such impressive feats, but this does not mean that they possess true linguistic comprehension any more than computers possess it.

Because the refutation of anecdotal claims of animal “intelligence” would be an endless task, what is needed here is affirmative demonstration that apes lack true intellect. The Australian philosopher and theologian Austin M. Woodbury provided such a positive demonstration, basing it on nature’s need to manifest necessary formal effects, as when sodium necessarily reveals its nature in tending to combine with chlorine. So too, true intellect manifests its nature in four formal effects which are always evident if true intellect is present: (1) genuine speech, (2) true progress, (3) knowledge of relations, and (4) knowledge of immaterial objects. (Natural Philosophy, Treatise Three, Psychology, Bk. 3, Ch. 40, Art. 7 [unpublished manuscript, 1951] pp. 432-65.)

In the wild state, animals (including apes) manifest none of these four formal effects. First, they fail to develop true language on their own. When apes are taught to manipulate signs, they become, as animal psychologist Heini Hediger has pointed out, virtual “artifacts” — through the language and tasks that we humans impose on them. If brute animals had intellect, they would long ago have invented signs and composed complex linguistic syntax. Since they have not done so, they lack true intellect. Second, apes in the wild make no genuine progress. It is true that they learn through experience, imitation, and training. Rarely, as in the case of the “termite fishing” chimps reported by Jane Goodall, they even appear to be “programmed” by their environment to form and use tools. Still, because they lack intellectual self-reflection, they fail to correct themselves, an ability needed for true progress. One looks in vain for progress in works, sciences, art, and virtue among our subhuman animal associates. Third, brute animals do not understand real relationships, such as cause and effect. They merely learn to associate images. Fourth and most decisively, apes show no sign whatever of grasping immaterial objects, such as the sciences and religious beliefs typical of human abstract understanding. Subhuman primates and other animals fail all four tests of true intellective activity. In the animal kingdom, man alone possesses true intellect.

While anyone can form an image of a man or a triangle, no one can form an actual image of humanity or triangularity. The latter terms refer not to images but to universal concepts in which we understand the nature of things. No beast, only man, possesses this intellectual property. Images are always concrete, singular, particular, sensible, and imaginable. In contrast, the universal concept (1) has no sensible qualities whatever, and (2) is entirely unimaginable. Words do not express “pictures in our heads.” For most words, which express concepts or meanings, there simply are no “proper” images. Aside from the arbitrary physical sound or spelling peculiar to a given language, what image corresponds to words, such as “injustice,” “capriciousness,” or even “word” itself? Man’s innate ability to form universal concepts is the basis for his possession of genuine language, and for the ability to translate from one language into another the same meanings that constitute our understanding of the nature of things. Man alone understands the nature of the world in which he lives.

The essential superiority of man’s intellective knowledge also reveals his spiritual nature. Image and concept manifest the radical distinction between the material and spiritual orders. Images never escape the individuating, quantifying conditions of matter, which is why they are always of this particular thing with these sensible qualities. Concepts manifest their spiritual nature because, although they express the essence of every man or triangle, they have the particular sensible qualities of none – thereby entirely escaping the conditions of matter. Origin of the Human Species, chapter six,presents a more detailed demonstration of this crucial metaphysical truth than space here permits.

Since every effect requires a proportional cause, the ability to produce spiritual universal concepts [effect] reveals that the intellect [cause] which produces them must also be spiritual in nature. So, too, the substantial form [soul] which animates the human organism must be spiritual, in order to sustain the human intellective powers that produce these spiritual concepts. Being spiritual means (1) that the human soul is immaterial, that is, not itself extended in space, and (2) that it is subsistent, that is, that it exists as a substance in its own right and is not in any way dependent on matter for its existence. Clearly, the purely material evolutionary process of Darwinism cannot account for the appearance of a spiritual soul in each and every human being. Although his reasoning is not essential to the present enquiry, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that the human soul must be directly created by God. (Summa theologiae, 1, q. 90, aa. 2-3.)

Any attempt to reconcile the current theory of human evolution with Sacred Scripture faces the objection that the patriarchal genealogies in Genesis indicate Adam lived only about 6,000 years ago (one simply adds the years between the “begots” in the “continuous” chronology), whereas evolution implies far greater antiquity. But biblical genealogies are often neither continuous nor complete. The most striking example is found in Matthew 1: 1, which reads: “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Most scholars today agree that Scripture gives us no data for chronological computations prior to Abraham’s time.

While paleoanthropologists do not fully agree on the details of human emergence, a typical composite scenario of the current human evolutionary theory runs something like this: over millions of years, modern human beings emerged from early hominid forebears, such as the Australopithecines which first appeared some four million years ago (using conventional dating). These primates, which themselves descended from prior arboreal stock, bore designations, such as afarensis, africanus, robustus, and boisei, andwere extant until about two million years ago. Then followed the more recent genus Homo, which included specific representatives, such as habilis, erectus, sapiens (archaic), sapiens (Neanderthal), sapiens (Cro-Magnon), and sapiens (modern). Evolutionists tend to presume a gradual emergence of intelligence, consciousness, and self-reflection, so that no first truly human individual may be said to have appeared suddenly. All this appears to make problematic the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis.

But still, a gradual emergence of intellect is absurd. Either an intellective soul is present, or it is not. If present (even with diminished activity for some reason), true man is definitively there. The first fossil evidence of genuine intellective activity bespeaks the presence of what might be the first human beings. Early hominid fossil skeletal remains tell us nothing about whether intellect was present. Signs of intellective activity are preserved only in artifacts, and in evidence of the controlled use of fire. Anthropologists tell us that prior to 150,000 years ago, the evidence from fire use remains controversial. Since intellectively-produced artifacts date to well before that time, use of fire does not enable us to determine the first presence of mankind.

The production of stone tools that undoubtedly manifest deliberate intellective activity is the primary fossil evidence of true human presence. Such evidence is found in the appearance of congruent, three-dimensionally symmetrical later Acheulean stone tools (hand axes). These appear for the first time, according to current human evolutionary theory, associated with the population of Homo erectus, during the Middle Pleistocene period, about 500,000 years ago. Earlier Acheulean hand axes, showing some symmetry, date back to 1.4 million years ago. But apes in general have the shape recognition capabilities sufficient to make such tools. The later Acheulean hand axes are unique in their artistic design elements. Their makers perfected their shape on all sides, manifesting a universal understanding of a geometric ideal to be concretely realized. Such tools reveal true intellective activity, and their makers had to be true men. True men might have existed prior to this period, but if so, they failed to leave clear evidence of intellective activity. And so, assuming that the first clear evidence of such activity is shown in these later Acheulean hand axes, reason suggests that the Middle Pleistocene Homo erectus population is a good candidate for the first true man, Adam.

In1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission offered a conservative standard against which to measure whether or not evolutionary claims can match the foundational requirements of Scripture. The Commission affirms certain facts–the initial state of grace of our first parents, their disobedience, and the promise of a Redeemer–which cannot and need not be tested against science and the fossil record. Rather, the decrees which are more problematic for evolutionary theory are (1) the unity of the human race, (2) the special creation of man, and (3) the formation of the first woman from the first man.

The “unity of the human race” raises the issue of polygenism vs. monogenism, that is, do all of mankind descend from multiple sets of first true humans, or from but a single set–Adam and Eve? The unity of the human race appears to require a monogenetic origin, such as Pius XII teaches in Humani Generis. Most evolutionists would view a population passing through a “bottleneck” of a single pair of mating humans as unlikely, but possible. Since we know God exists, overcoming such adverse odds through special circumstances could be within His providence.

God might have caused the “special creation of man” in the most literal Genesis formulation, directly from the “slime of the earth.” Or, as suggested by Cyril Vollert, He might have infused a spiritual soul directly into an adult organism, instantly transforming that primate into a true human being by altering the body’s material organization for perfect actuation by the human soul. (Cyril Vollert, Symposium on Evolution, 1959) Another possibility that Vollert suggests is that God effected the change at the point of embryonic formation. This hypothesis appears possible, since highly evolved non-human primates might nurture and protect such human children as their own. Special divine ordinance or a natural repugnance for sexual congress with non-human primates might allow such humans to begin a life separate from them.

More vexing is the need to affirm “the formation of the first woman from the first man.” Vollert points out that (1) the biblical text is open to broad interpretation, and (2) the Pontifical Biblical Commission does not force a literal reading. He describes several attempts at symbolic interpretation. Other writers, such as the theologian Peter Damian Fehlner, insist that Eve was formed from the physical body of Adam. Nothing forbids the possibility that, hidden deep in the recesses of fossil history, God may have miraculously formed Eve’s body from Adam’s rib (or “side,” as the Hebrew word sela can mean). Still, a physical scenario more closely tied to the theory of evolution might be attempted.

Vollert’s hypothesis of embryonic transformation may prove useful here. Suppose that at the precise moment of conception, the intellective soul was infused into the prepared matter, transforming it into the first human being, Adam. Although monozygotic twinning almost always results in siblings of the same sex, divine providence might then have guided an extremely rare natural process that results in boy/girl twins. This can occur when an “XXY” zygote undergoes twinning and one twin drops the extra “X” chromosome, while the other drops the extra “Y” chromosome. While this speculation is hypothetical, it defends Eve’s origin from Adam’s body, and does it in a manner materially connected to evolutionary theory. Granted, this possible scenario appears far removed from a literalist reading of Genesis. Still, it offers a reasonable way to reconcile the factual scientific evidence proposed by evolutionary theory with a legitimate reading of Scripture.

Origin of the Human Species presents the central theme outlined above in far greater detail, offering possible solutions to many difficulties not raised in this short space. In examining this and many other evolution-related topics, it confirms repeatedly the observation of G.K. Chesterton that Christianity is a myth that is true.

Books on Evolution

The following article by Dr. Bonnette appeared on p. 9 of the 13 January 2005 edition of The Wanderer, a national Catholic newspaper. Reprinted with permission. The Wanderer phone: (651) 224-5733.


By Dennis Bonnette, Ph.D.

Many Christians give little thought to speculative problems posed when one tries to fit contemporary evolutionary theory with the Genesis narrative about Adam and Eve. Others exhibit reactions ranging from mild puzzlement to raging skepticism. Many lose their faith entirely, while others outside the Christian fold refuse even to investigate a belief system they view as based on a fanciful fairy tale. Even professors of religious studies in allegedly Catholic colleges today tell students that the Genesis story is pure mythology. After all, how can a modern educated person take seriously this colorful depiction of two first parents miraculously created in the fabled Garden of Eden just six thousand years ago, when science tells us that we, Homo sapiens, originated through gradual evolution over millions of years from hairy primitive primates’

Concern over a clash of science with faith here arises because without a credible Genesis story Christianity becomes an oxymoron. Central to that narrative is the mystery of Original Sin. If Adam and Eve did not exist as historically actual human beings who sinned, thereby communicating their fallen human nature to all their descendants, what need would there be for redemption or a Redeemer? The entire theological realm is at stake in Adam and Eve.

In the broader social order, the last century and a half has witnessed militant atheism widely replace belief in God as Creator of man and nature. From this metaphysical revolution followed the historic tragedies of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism as well as a pernicious secular humanism which pervades and devastates Western liberal democracies today. These disastrous societal experiments, in turn, were inspired by Darwinist evolutionary claims that man is merely a highly developed animal, the end product of a purely naturalistic evolutionary process.

Thus two central questions confront the 21st century educated person: (1) Does continued religious belief in man’s special creation and afterlife make any sense if we are but highly evolved animals? (2) How can we take seriously social claims about the rights, dignity, freedom, and responsibility of each individual human person if mankind is simply one among large numbers of other animal species that evolved on Earth? These taunts arise from Darwinism’s logical undercutting of man’s special place in the world and from its implicit ridicule of the Genesis account of human origins.

Hundreds of books today deal with human origins and evolutionary theory, presenting diverse perspectives on how science in this area relates to Scripture. The classical Darwinist or neo-Darwinist position is exemplified in works such as Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, which epitomizes the naturalistic case: Nature is simply a given, with no God to create it or direct its progress. Evolution is a completely blind, purely materialistic mechanism fully capable by itself of accounting for the emergence of Homo sapiens. Among the nearly endless list of prominent recent Neo-Darwinists would be Daniel C. Dennett, John Maynard Smith, Stephen J. Gould, and Carl Sagan. This blatantly atheistic naturalism disdains both Genesis and its Author. Still, metaphysical science, outstandingly represented in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, refutes naturalism by demonstrating rationally that God exists and creates, sustains, and can directly intervene in, the natural order.

The Intelligent Design movement challenges classical Darwinist naturalism, while accepting conventional scientific explanations and an old-Earth chronology, but insisting that some intelligent agency must be behind all cosmic processes. ID theory is exemplified in works such as Michael J. Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, which argues that careful analysis of the Lilliputian world of the cell reveals irreducible complexities manifesting deliberate design, not blind evolution. Other ID theorists, such as Michael Denton, William Dembski, and Phillip Johnson, attack Darwinist macro-evolutionary claims by insisting that some intelligence must underlie a cosmic complexity defying lesser explanations. Metaphysicians know well that an Intelligent Governor created and sustains the cosmos, as St. Thomas Aquinas demonstrates in his fifth way. What ID theorists attempt to show is that even natural science can discern unmistakable evidence of intelligent causal agency underlying the natural world. Still, ID theory’s inherent philosophical limitation from theism’s perspective is its lack of assurance that any designer or designers is actually the God of tradition and not some lesser, secondary agent(s). Unaided natural science inherently fails to draw the properly metaphysical conclusion.

Theistic evolution affirms God’s existence and postulates only His direction and sustenance of an overall evolutionary process, except for direct creation of human spiritual souls (and individual miraculous events entailed in historical revelation). It embraces conventional natural science and supports an old-Earth chronology, suggesting that Earth is some 4.6 billion years old and that the human body developed over millions of years before God infused the first spiritual soul. Theistic evolution maximizes creatures’ secondary causality by supposing that all scientifically problematic transitions, such as from non-life to life or the sudden appearance of major phyla, are overcome without direct divine intervention. Progressive creationism distinguishes itself from theistic evolution by maintaining that several acts of fiat creation mark Earth’s history. Progressive creationism remains open to such divine intervention, postulating that life’s history should reflect such discontinuities. Assuming such discontinuities as life’s first appearance or the Cambrian “explosion” must be overcome without direct divine intervention appears tantamount to embracing Darwinism’s naturalistic fallacy, which presumes that every scientifically problematic emergence must be explained by purely natural means, since there is no God to intervene. On the contrary, if God exists as theistic evolution concedes, His power can readily suffice to explain what science cannot. Still, new data might favor theistic evolution by offering adequate natural explanations for these presently inexplicable discontinuities.

Finally, creation science claims that sound natural science sustains belief that the universe is but some 6,000 to 10,000 years old and that God directly created the first true human beings, our first parents, Adam and Eve, some 6,000 years ago just as the popularized literal reading of Genesis appears to affirm. Gerard Keane’s Creation Rediscovered exemplifies such creation science. Seeking to defend what they perceive as Scriptural orthodoxy, many fundamentalist Christians and even a number of Catholics embrace this viewpoint. While most conventional scientists firmly reject their findings, creation scientists remain convinced that true science supports their very literal reading of Scripture.

Today hundreds of books deal with evolutionary theory and human origins. The vast majority fall into one of two categories: (1) those that offer conventional natural science, but embrace either atheistic naturalism (Darwinism) or a form of theistic evolution that sacrifices essential tenets of Christian theology, especially the historical reality of Adam and Eve and of Original Sin, or (2) those that defend Christian beliefs about Genesis, but endorse a young-Earth creationism whose scientific credentials are often disputed. Relatively few books, such as Fr. William Kramer’s excellent Evolution & Creation, accept conventional science and an old-Earth chronology while attempting to explain how all this conforms to an authentic reading of Genesis.

Sophisticated scientific arguments may exceed the competency even of well-educated laymen. Still, as Catholics, we are bound to hold certain truths touching on the content of Genesis. The 1909 Biblical Commission affirms these facts to include

“…the creation of all things which was accomplished by God at the beginning of time, the special creation of man, the formation of the first woman from man, the unity of the human race, the original happiness of our first parents in a state of justice, integrity, and immortality, the divine command laid upon man to prove his obedience, the transgression of that divine command at the instigation of the devil under the form of a serpent, the fall of our first parents from their primitive state of innocence, and the promise of a future Redeemer.” (Acta apostolis sedis, 1 (1909), pp. 567-569, as translated in Rome and the Study of Scripture, 7th edition (St. Meinrad, Ind.: Abbey Press Publishing Division, 1964), p. 123.)

Looking at these many conflicting works about evolution theory and its impact upon theological truth, I researched how philosophical analysis might illuminate this highly complex, radically interdisciplinary scientific theory. My book, Origin of the Human Species, was the final product of that enquiry.

Origin of the Human Species is not a book of natural science, but a philosophical work about the nature of the ongoing debate, which seeks to determine what conclusions might be drawn that would stand the test of time and likewise demonstrate the eternal harmony of faith and reason, science and revelation. Contrary to the expectations of both Darwinists and fundamentalist creationists, I found that, whether one accepts the conventional human evolution theory or not, a sound case could still be made for the historical reality of Adam and Eve as our first parents. While not assuming the conventional theory’s truth, my work seeks to explain in greater detail than previously attempted by others precisely how that theory can be reconciled with Genesis. This includes addressing each of the relevant facts affirmed by the 1909 Biblical Commission. Some will no doubt question the authentic Catholicity of a book which claims that evolution theory need not conflict with Catholic teaching. Still, the late, highly respected Jesuit theologian, Fr. John A. Hardon, wrote of my book, Origin of the Human Species, that it is “… a clear explanation of what every Christian believes – that humanity began with Adam and Eve, created by God as the parents of the human race.”

Origin of the Human Species departs from naturalistic evolutionism by showing that (1) God exists, (2) He continuously conserves all finite beings in existence, (3) human beings possess spiritual and immortal intellective souls, and (4) God immediately and directly creates each human soul. Naturalism presupposes there is no God to create, conserve, or providentially direct any evolutionary process. As every good Thomistic philosopher knows, God must be present (1) to sustain the very existence of the natural order at every instant, (2) to sustain the existence and nature of any possible evolutionary process, and (3) to create directly the first and every subsequent individual human spiritual soul. In these ways alone, sound philosophy strips from evolutionary atheism its strident claim that nature alone is all that is needed to explain the emergence of man.

Origin of the Human Species includes extensive analysis of contemporary ape-language studies, showing that claims of lower primate linguistic competence prove no danger to essential human superiority. The vast majority of animal psychologists and paleoanthropologists bring to their research evolutionary and materialistic presuppositions. For them to discern, much less expect, the real qualitative chasm between lower animals and true man is virtually impossible. For this reason, proper philosophical analysis of animal “intelligence” claims and demonstration of the essential, spiritual superiority of true man become critically important to a proper understanding of how evolutionary claims might fit with authentic theology. OHS offers such analysis and demonstration – a feature missing from most other works on evolution written by those whose expertise lies primarily in natural science. Moreover, establishing clearly the philosophical criteria for discerning true human activity is essential in determining which proposed hominid populations might exhibit authentic human nature.

Origin of the Human Species explores the epistemological limitations of natural science. Scientific claims frequently exceed their legitimate authority – so as to create conflicts with revelation where none exist. OHS removes the issue of human origins as an impediment to Catholic apologetics. It makes clear that natural science poses no legitimate threat either to the historicity of our first parents, Adam and Eve, or to human spiritual superiority over every other species on the planet. Once this is accomplished, revelation’s claims can then be tested by the much more recent evidence of the Christian era. When the science of apologetics employs that evidence to defend the rationality of belief in the truth of the Catholic Church and the fullness of her teaching, the historical reality of Adam and Eve becomes a fully credible element of that teaching. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church (390) affirms that Genesis 3 “uses figurative language,” it also “affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.”+ + +

Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida now publishes Origin of the Human Species (second edition: 2003) with a new foreword by Dr. Michael J. Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box. $16.95 plus $5 shipping.______________________________________________________________________

(At the end of 2003, Dr. Dennis Bonnette retired as Full Professor of Philosophy at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York, where he was also Chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1992 to 2002. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1970, and taught philosophy at the college level for more than 40 years. He has written a number of scholarly articles as well as two books, Aquinas’ Proofs for God’s Existence and Origin of the Human Species.)

Ape-Language Studies

This article was first published in Faith & Reason, 19:2, 3 (Fall 1993), pp. 221-263. Permission to print kindly granted by Christendom College Press, Christendom College, 134 Christendom Avenue, Front Royal, Virginia, 22630.


By Dennis Bonnette, Ph.D.


Originally published in 1993, this article was the basis for chapter five of my book, Origin of the Human Species, whose second edition appeared in 2003. My book explores questions raised by evolutionary theory – ultimately focusing on what we may confidently say about human origins, and showing that belief in Adam and Eve as the human race’s first parents remains reasonable, despite many modern evolutionists’ skepticism. This article serves the book’s overall aims by defending the uniqueness of man and of his essential superiority over lower animals, including other primates.

The typical evolutionary mindset holds that man is merely a highly developed animal, different in complexity, but not in kind, from lower animals. Thus, the naturalistic mentality of many animal psychologists anticipates that subhuman primates will tend to approach human beings’ mental powers, manifested in part through alleged ape linguistic abilities. Thus, the contemporary obsession with ape-language studies, complete with claims that chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and certain other subhuman primates, have been taught to use various forms of sign language and can now understand the meanings of hundreds of words, form sentences, and communicate effectively with humans and even among themselves. These claims feed the inevitable conclusion that man himself no longer holds a preeminent place in the animal kingdom, that his is but one among many other species, and that continued belief that God made him in His image and gave him dominion over all lower creatures is simply an outdated religious myth.

I examine subhuman linguistic claims in two steps: First, I show that even some evolutionist natural scientists, who have analyzed ape-language studies, conclude that apes have not yet mastered true language. In 1979, some researchers challenged ape-language claims by arguing that such behavior can be explained by non-linguistic mechanisms such as (1) simple imitation, (2) the Clever Hans effect, (3) the anthropomorphic fallacy, and (4) rapid non-syntactical signing to obtain immediate sensible rewards. Two of the most important claims – (1) that apes could combine signs creatively in novel sequences and (2) that they showed knowledge of syntactic structure – were said to be based merely upon anecdotal data, not upon acceptable scientific methodology.

Second, I use philosophical analysis to demonstrate (1) why human intellective knowledge is needed to possess genuine language, and (2) why it will be forever impossible for subhuman primates to exhibit true linguistic ability. Materialist explanations of animal and human behavior miss the crucial distinction between sense and intellect. Animals possess sense knowledge alone, whereas man possesses both sense and intellective knowledge. Intellective knowledge is the hallmark of the human spiritual soul, and is not shared with our animal friends. Man exhibits intellective knowledge by (1) forming abstract concepts, (2) making judgments, and (3) reasoning from premises to conclusions in logical fashion. Subhuman animals’ sensory abilities, including imagination and sense memory, enable them to manipulate sensory data and use inborn natural signs to communicate instinctively, and even to be taught by man to use humanly-invented signs. Still, they do not understand the meanings their signs express, nor form judgments, much less engage in reasoning. The hallmark of all ape behavior, including trained language use, is its relentless focus on immediate sensory rewards, such as food, toys, sex, or interaction with other animals. Abstract goals, such as earning a diploma or getting a better job or serving God, mean nothing to apes and will not beget sign language responses.

Proof of my claims here requires (1) showing that ape-language research data can be explained in terms of mere sense knowledge, and (2) showing that such behavior must be so explained by positive proof that apes lack intellect. The first task is achieved largely in terms of the abovementioned scientific criticisms and also by pointing out that computers, which actually understand nothing and are not even alive, can imitate human linguistic behavior simply by manipulating data. Apes, with relatively large brains and elaborate sense faculties, can also accomplish such impressive feats, but this need not mean that they possess true linguistic comprehension any more than computers do.

The second task, to show that subhuman primates’ linguistic behavior must be read as mere sensory activity, requires positive demonstration that apes lack true intellect. Four formal effects demonstrate true intellect: (1) genuine speech, (2) true progress, (3) knowledge of relations, and (4) knowledge of immaterial objects. In their wild state, with no human influence, animals, including apes, (1) fail to develop true language, and (2) fail to make genuine progress. Even in a domesticated environment, they still (3) show no understanding of real relationships (such as cause and effect) — merely learning to associate images, and (4) clearly fail to develop the sciences and religious beliefs typical of human abstract understanding. While details of this proof require reading the article itself, the conclusion is that subhuman primates and other animals fail all four tests of true intellective activity. Hence, man alone possesses true intellect.

The radical difference between mere animals and true human beings is manifested acutely by the insurmountable distinction between the sense image and intellective concept. The image is always particular, concrete, imaginable, and has sense qualities, such as when we form the image of an individual human being or a particular triangle. But, the concept is always universal, abstract, unimaginable, and lacks all sense qualities, as when we understand the meaning of terms, such as “humanity” or “triangularity.”  Human beings have both kinds of knowing, whereas brute animals are restricted to knowledge of images alone. Again, full details are in the article.

We grasp fully the radical limitations of brute sense knowledge only when we compare it to man’s rich, expansive intellectual life which enables him to study all the sciences, to create exponential technological progress, to embrace transcendental religious belief systems, and even to reflect upon his own human nature so as to grasp its spiritual dimensions – destined to eternal life, and to the knowledge of and union with God Himself. These insights demonstrate that evolutionist claims about ape-language studies pose no threat whatever to human essential superiority. Man still has his God-given dominion over beasts – and always will.


The purpose of this article is to enquire whether, in the face of evidence gained from recent ape-language studies, it is still possible to delineate clearly between human intellectual life and brute sentient life—to refute the claims of the sensist philosophers who would reduce all human knowledge and activities to the level of mere sensation and sense appetite. This question cannot, and need not, be answered exhaustively in this relatively short study of the matter. In order to respond in the affirmative, it will suffice that we be able to show that even the most sophisticated sensory activities of animals bear no legitimate threat to the radical superiority of the human intellect—an intellect whose spiritual character is rationally demonstrable.

Nor is it our intent to present here the formal proofs for the spiritual nature of the human soul which have been offered by St. Thomas Aquinas and others.1 Rather, our primary focus will be upon an examination of evidence and arguments which reveal the inability of lower animals to present a credible challenge to the uniqueness of human intellectual life.

It has long been observed in nature that certain lower forms of life often imitate the activities and perfections of higher forms. For example, the tropisms found in certain plants—while not actually constituting sensation—nonetheless deceptively simulate the sensitive reactions proper to animals alone. So too, the human-like behaviour of many “clever” animals has caused much contemporary confusion on the part of, not only the general populace, but also even presumed experts on animal behaviour.

In great part this confusion has arisen because of the success of Darwinian evolution and its attendant reductionism in dominating for much of this century the academe of those natural sciences which deal with animal and human behaviour. Thus psychologists, zoologists, biologists, anthropologists, etc., tend to view human behaviour as nothing but an extension in degree, not in kind, of lower animal behaviour. Nowhere is this tendency more acutely seen than in the controversies arising out of contemporary ape-language studies.

For more than half a century various attempts have been made in a small number of research projects to teach chimpanzees and other primates to talk. The most successful techniques have involved the use of American Sign Language and computer-based artificial language systems. Great publicity has attended these efforts since the 1970s with claims of hundreds of words being “understood” by these subjects, new complex words being invented, and even sentences being formed with two-way “conversations” taking place, not only between trainer and primate, but even between primate and primate! To top

Dissent and Defense

Yet, by 1979, a simmering academic controversy about the legitimacy of primate linguistic credentials burst into view of the general public with the publication of two critical articles in Psychology Today2—one by Columbia University psychologist H. S. Terrace, the other by University of Indiana anthropologists Thomas and Jean Sebeok. Through a very careful re-evaluation of the signing activities of the subject of his own research project, a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, Terrace concluded, “I could find no evidence of an ape’s grammatical competence, either in my data or those of others.”3

The Sebeoks, moreover, argued that animal researchers have been engaging in a good deal of unwitting self-deception in accepting as linguistic competence behaviour which is actually the result of unconscious cuing. What they refer to is what is widely called the Clever Hans effect—named after a famous turn-of-the-century “thinking” horse whose “intelligent” answers to questions were exposed by Berlin psychologist Oskar Pfungst as simply the result of unintentional cues being given by his questioners.

The defenders of apes’ linguistic abilities engaged in immediate counter-attack—producing an intellectual battle which rages to the present day. It is important for us to note that almost all the participants in this debate are natural scientists who are of one mind concerning man’s materialistic and evolutionary origins. The input of dualist philosophers and theologians has, thus far, been virtually nil. Thus the critics of the “linguistic” apes, it should be observed, operate largely from a perspective which views man as nothing but a highly developed animal and which prescinds utterly from any philosophical arguments for the existence and spiritual nature of the human soul.

Among the ape’s defenders, we find Suzanne Chevalier-Skolnikoff who points out that the famed signing chimp, Washoe, has taught another chimp, Loulis, how to sign—although she concedes, “Loulis learned his signs mainly by imitation…”4

Chevalier-Skolnikoff also presents the following remarkable claims about ape behaviour:

Deception, “lying,” and joking are all behaviours that logically are dependent upon mental combinations, or symbolization, and, like other stage 6 behaviours, they cannot be cued. As mentioned above, deception, lying, and joking all appear in stage 6 in nonsigning apes, and I have observed this kind of behaviour both nonlinguistically and in conjunction with signing in the gorilla Koko during this stage. Consequently, I have no reason to doubt, as some authors have, Patterson’s reports that Koko tells lies and jokes.

Besides lying and joking, the gorilla Koko also has been recorded to argue with and correct others. Arguing and correcting are dependent upon comparing two viewpoints of a situation—existing conditions with nonexisting ones—and therefore require mental representation.5

Intentional lying, deception, joking, arguing, and correcting—if actually demonstrable from the research data—would, of course, bespeak unequivocally the presence of intellective activity on the part of apes. Yet, this is precisely why we must be so very careful about drawing such inferences from the available evidence. We must always be cautious not to assign facilely to higher causes that which could readily be explained in terms of lower causes. To top

The Anthropomorphic Fallacy

While this is scarcely a proper context in which to explore and critique the multiple data upon which Chevalier-Skolnikoff’s judgments are formed, it must be noted that such judgments necessarily flow from an interpretation of the concrete details examined. And herein lies the greatest danger to the human researcher who attempts to “read” the animal subject. The Sebeoks put the matter thus:

Investigators and experimenters, in turn, accommodate themselves to the expectations of their animal subjects, unwittingly entering into a subtle nonverbal communication with them while convincing themselves, on the basis of their own human rules of interpretation, that the apes’ reactions are more humanlike than direct evidence warrants.6

In a word, what the Sebeoks describe is the infamous anthropomorphic fallacy, that is, the error of attributing human qualities to animals based upon our nearly irresistible temptation to put ourselves in the brute’s place, and then, to view his actions in terms of our own human intellectual perspectives. The universality of this human tendency is such that even experts in animal behaviour frequently fail to avoid its pitfalls.

The specific content of such habitual anthropomorphism by ape researchers is thus described by the Sebeoks:

Time and again researchers read anomalous chimpanzee and gorilla signs as jokes, insults, metaphors, and the like. In one case, an animal was reported to be deliberately joking when, in response to persistent attempts to get it to sign “drink” (by tilting its hand at its mouth), it made the sign perfectly, but at its ear rather than its mouth.7

Clearly, this sort of suspicion strikes at the heart of Koko’s claimed performance of “deception, lying, joking, etc.”

In fact, the synergism of anthropomorphism and the Clever Hans effect is seen by psychologist Stephen Walker as justifying inherent skepticism about any and all claims made on behalf of American Sign Language trained apes.

The most important type of unwitting human direction of behaviour which has been interpreted as the product of the mental organisation of the apes themselves is in the “prompting” of sequences of gestures in animals trained with the American Sign Language method…. As practically all instances of sequences or combinations of gestures by chimpanzees or gorillas are made in the context of interactions with a human companion, there is virtually no evidence of this kind which is not vulnerable to the charge that the human contact determined the sequence of combinations observed.8

Yet, not all ape communication techniques employed by researchers have involved the use of American Sign Language. Plastic symbols, computer-controlled keyboards, and other artificial devices have been utilized in order to lessen, or possibly eliminate, human influence on the process.

In defending the research of Savage-Rumbaugh—who used a computer-controlled keyboard system—psychologist Duane M. Rumbaugh insists that the evidence shows the clear capacity for categorization free from any Clever Hans effect:

For our apes the symbols are referential, representational, and communicative in value. Data obtained and reported by Savage- Rumbaugh at that convention made it clear that the chimpanzees Sherman and Austin categorize learned symbols as foods and tools (nonedibles) just as they categorize the physical referents themselves. These data were obtained from tightly controlled test situations in which the animals had no human present in the room at the keyboard to influence their choice of keys for purposes of categorizing.9

In this, though, as in all other instances of supposed lower primate “intentional” communication, the fundamental problem which remains is the influence of man in “programming” the training and responses of the animals, and then, man’s tendency to anthropomorphize the interpretation of the results of this very influence. The results never seem quite as definitive to the sceptics as they do to the researchers who nearly live with the subjects they wish to “objectively” investigate. The inherent difficulty posed for those who would completely eliminate the Clever Hans effect is well-stated by the Sebeoks.

Apes simply do not take part in such man-made laboratory tests without a great deal of coaxing. The world’s leading authority on human-animal communication, Heini Hediger, former director of the Zurich zoo, in fact deems the task of eliminating the Clever Hans effect analogous to squaring the circle—“if only for the reason that every experimental method is necessarily a human method and must thus, per se, constitute a human influence on the animal.”10

Thus we see that the Sebeoks support Hediger’s claim that total elimination of the Clever Hans effect would constitute an actual contradiction in terms—a goal entirely impossible of attainment.

Escaping from Clever Hans

And yet, it is important not to rest the entire case against “talking” apes upon the Clever Hans effect as championed by the Sebeoks. Walker points to research done by Roger Fouts, the Gardners (with the famous Washoe), and Savage-Rumbaugh as appearing to escape the charge of unintentional cuing. Concerning the latter, he writes:

When two chimpanzees exchanged information between themselves, using the computer-controlled keyboard system, with experimenters not in the same room (Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1978b), the evidence seems relatively robust.11

It would appear that the phrase, “Clever Hans effect,” is now being given a meaning which includes two distinct aspects: (1) unintentional cuing of the animals and (2) any human influence upon the animals. While the Sebeoks and other critics are undoubtedly correct in insisting that human influence is inherent in every ape experiment devised by man, yet it is also clearly not the case that unintentional cuing can explain all significant ape communicative achievements.

Given exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, training by researchers, several novel and rather impressive ape communication performances—free of all unintentional cuing—have been reasonably well documented. What is referred to here is not merely the well-known abilities of trained chimpanzees and gorillas to associate arbitrary signs with objects, nor even their ability to string together series of such signs in what Terrace and others dismiss as simply urgent attempts to obtain some immediately sensible reward.

Rather, more impressive experimental results are now forthcoming, e.g., the Savage-Rumbaugh experiments in which two chimpanzees were taught to communicate and cooperate with each other—using a computer keyboard to transmit information revealing the location of hidden food.12 In another experiment, after extensive training and prompting, the same animals learned to cooperate with one another by handing over the correct tool needed to obtain food when their primate partner requested it—again by use of computer symbols and without human presence during the actual experiment. Walker offers his inferences there from:

There can be little doubt, in the case of this experiment, that the visual patterns used in the keyboard system had mental associations with objects, and that the chimpanzee who punched a particular key did this in the expectation that the other animal would hand him a particular tool.13

Still later, these same prodigious chimpanzees advanced to seemingly quite abstract symbolic associations:

When they were trained with arbitrary symbols assigned to the two object categories “foods” and “tools” Austin and Sherman successfully selected the appropriate category, when shown arbitrary symbols which were the names for particular foods or tools (Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1980). That is, they were able to label labels, rather than merely label objects: for instance if shown the arbitrary pattern indicating “banana” they responded by pressing the key meaning “food,” but if shown the symbol for “wrench” they pressed the “tool” key.14

Finally, Woodruff and Premack are reported to have devised a cuing-free experiment in which chimpanzees indicated by gesture the presence of food in a container to human participants who did not know its location. They would correctly direct “friendly” humans who would then share the food with them, but would mislead “unfriendly” humans who would not share the food—since the animals were then permitted to get the food for themselves.15

Each of the above experimental “successes” is of interest since each appears to be quite free, not from original human influence in the training process, but at least from the Clever Hans effect of unintentional cuing. Moreover, they demonstrate fairly complex symbol-object associative skills, “intentional” communication, and even, in the last case, some form of “deception.” We place quotation marks about the terms, “intentional” and “deception,” because the exact cognitive content of such acts remains to be properly understood.

Yet, despite the above-described notable results of non-cued experiments as well as claims of hundreds of “words” being learned and of “sentences” and even “dialogue” being articulated by signing apes, careful natural scientific observers remain convinced of essential differences still remaining between ape and human capabilities. To top

The Uniqueness of Human Speech

After extremely careful analysis of all the relevant data and arguments presented by the ape-language studies, Walker finally concludes that man’s linguistic capabilities remain unique:

Apes trained to employ artificial systems of symbolic communication ought not, therefore, to be said to have acquired a language, in the sense that people acquire a language. Human language is unique to humans, and although some of the distinctive features of human speech, such as the mimicking of sounds, may be observed in other species, the resemblance between, for instance, the trained gesturing of a chimpanzee and communication via sign- language among the human deaf is in some senses no greater than the resemblance between the speech of a parrot and that of its owner.16

A parrot might, hypothetically, be trained to say, “Polly wants a cracker because Polly is hungry and because Polly knows that a cracker would neutralize the hyperacidity of his stomach acid and thereby reestablish its normal pH.” It might even be trained to say this in order to obtain food when hungry. Yet, no one would seriously contend that the bird in question actually understands concepts such as “neutralize,” “hyperacidity,” and “normal pH.” It is one thing to associate a trained response with a given stimulus, but quite another to grasp intellectually the intrinsic nature of each in all its various elements as well as the nature of the cause-effect relationship entailed.

Walker also concludes that—aside from their evident superiority in terms of the “sheer quantity” of associations learned—the apes’ capabilities do not qualitatively exceed those of lower species, e.g., as when a dog responds to the arbitrary sign of a buzzer in order to obtain a piece of meat through the performance of some trained action:

In so far as it can be demonstrated that the apes establish a collection of associations between signs and objects, then the results of their training extend further than any previously observed form of animal learning, but it is not clear that they need a substantially different kind of ability to make these associations from that which may be used by other mammals to respond to smaller sets of signals.17

He also notes the essential dependence of the animals upon human influence in order to assure their performance:

Even when a computer-controlled keyboard is used, so that tests can be made in the absence of a human presence, social interactions between human trainers and the animal being trained are apparently necessary if the animal is to show any interest in using the keyboard (Rumbaugh, 1977).18

Finally, Walker eloquently describes the radical wall of separation which distinguishes man from all the lower primates—pointing in particular to man’s unique possession of language in its proper meaning:

Of all the discontinuities between man and animals that could be quoted, including the exclusively human faculties for abstraction, reason, morality, culture and technology, and the division of labour . . . the evergreen candidate for the fundamental discontinuity, which might qualify all others, is language. . . . In a state of nature we expect humans to talk, and by comparison, the most unrelenting efforts to induce our closest living relatives to reveal hidden linguistic potential have left the discontinuity of speech bloodied, but unbowed.19

With respect to the linguistic facility of apes in comparison to man, Walker maintains that chimpanzees form “mental” associations—but that their abilities pale against those displayed by people:

It seems necessary to accept that under the conditions described, chimpanzees form mental associations between perceptual schemata for manual gestures and others for object categories. This is not to say, in Romanes’s phrase, that they can mean propositions, in forms such as “all chimpanzees like bananas….” [S]ince it has not been convincingly demonstrated that one chimpanzee gesture modifies another, or that there is any approximation to syntax and grammar in the comprehension or expression of artificial gestures, the similarity between the use of individual signs by apes, and the use of words by people, is definitely limited.20

Despite Walker’s willingness here to defend the uniqueness of man, we note that he yet shares the tendency of most natural scientists to describe lower primates’ associative imaginative acts while employing philosophically misapplied terms such as “mental,” “understand,” and “think.” In proper philosophical usage, such terms are strictly predicable of human intellectual activities. Their application to brute animals in this context serves only to confuse the intellectual with the sentient order.

In an observation which strikes at the very heart of all ape language experiments, Hediger supports the claim by biophilosopher Bernard Rensch who noted in 1973 that nothing like human language has ever been found among any of the apes in the state of nature. Hediger comments:

In other words, with all animals with which we try to enter into conversation we do not deal with primary animals but with anthropogenous animals, so-to-speak with artifacts, and we do not know how much of their behaviour may still be labelled as animal behaviour and how much, through the catalytic effect of man, has been manipulated into the animal. This is just what we would like to know. Within this lie the alpha and omega of practically all such animal experiments since Clever Hans.21

This amounts to a recognition that all ape-language studies presuppose the invention of true language by man. This peculiarly human invention is then imposed by man upon the apes. The day on which apes create their own linguistic system is still the dream of science fiction.

As is well known to the philosophical science of psychology, human language consists of a deliberately invented system of arbitrary or conventional signs.22 Thus the English word “red” could just as well have stood for the natural colour green—except for the convention or agreement by all that it should represent just what it does. The alternative to such arbitrary signs consists of what are termed natural signs, which, as the name implies, flow from the very nature of something. Thus smoke is a natural sign of fire, a beaver slapping its tail on water is a natural sign of danger, and the various calls of birds are signs of specific natural meanings—which cannot be arbitrarily interchanged or invented. The hiss of a cat is never equivalent to its purr.

From all this, it is clear that in teaching apes to “talk” man is simply imposing upon them his own system of arbitrary or conventional signs. The signs belong to man, not to the apes. The apes use them only because we train them to do so. We thus turn the apes, as Hediger says, into “artifacts” of our own creation.

Hediger emphasizes the importance of not underestimating the impact of human training upon lower species:

This amazing act of training causes one to ponder the manifold efforts of several researchers to enter into language contact, into a dialogue with apes….

In each case the chimpanzees were demonstrated the desired actions with the hope that they would react in a certain way. . . . with Washoe, Sarah, Lana, and so forth, it is the production of certain signs in which we would like to see a language. But how can we prove that such answers are to be understood as elements of a language, and that they are not only reactions to certain orders and expression, in other words simply performances of training?23

One perhaps should ponder here that it is not brute animals alone which can react to training in a way which bespeaks performance but lack of understanding. Have we not all, at one time or another, heard a small child speak a sentence—even with perfect syntax and grammar—whose meaning obviously utterly eludes him? Or, at least, we hope it eludes him! And, if such can occur in children through training and imitation, one can well understand Hediger’s hesitancy to attribute intellectual understanding to a brute animal when such acts could well be explained by simple performance training.

Moreover, Hediger makes a suggestion which reveals the extreme difficulty entailed in assuring that apes actually do understand the meanings of the “words” they gesture under present methods:

I do not doubt that Washoe and other chimps have learned a number of signs in the sense of ASL. But it seems to me that a better clarification could be reached mainly through the introduction of the orders “repeat” and “hold it.” By this the chimpanzee could show that he really understands the single elements and does not execute fast, sweeping movements into which one possibly could read such elements.24

Since such “stop action” techniques have never even been attempted in present ASL trained apes, it would seem that demonstration of true intellectual understanding of hand signs in them is virtually impossible. By contrast, humans frequently do explicate their precise meanings to each other—even to the point of writing scholarly papers immersed in linguistic analysis. To top

The Inferiority of Apes

In contrast with the rather elevated dialogue about apes’ supposed “mental” abilities, Hediger makes a fundamental observation designed to cut the Gordian knot of much of the controversy. Analogous to the old retort, “If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?,” Hediger’s rather fatally apropos version runs essentially thus: “If apes are so intelligent, why can’t they learn to clean their own cages?”

If apes really dispose of the great intelligence and the highly developed communication ability that one has attributed to them lately—why in no case in the zoos of the world, where thousands of apes live and reproduce, has it been possible to get one to clean his own cage and to prepare his own food?25

In a follow-up comment made, presumably, without any personal prejudice against apes, Hediger writes, “Apes have no notion of work. We might perhaps teach an ape a sign for work but he will never grasp the human conception of work.”26

Finally, Hediger notes that “the animal has no access to the future. It lives entirely in the present time.”27 And again, Hediger insists, “To my knowledge, up to now, no animal, not even an ape, has ever been able to talk about a past or a future event.”28

If argument from authority has any force at all, it should be noted here that Heini Hediger is described by the Sebeoks as the “world’s leading authority on human-animal communication… (and) …former director of the Zurich zoo….”29

Moreover, the conclusions by Walker cited above warrant special attention because his book, Animal Thought, represents an outstanding synthesis of available data on animal “mental” processes and includes an extensive review of the recently conducted ape-language studies.30

In addition to the specific distinctions between ape and man noted above, the philosopher notices a pattern of evidence which tends to confirm his own conclusions. For it is clear that the apes studied are, in all well-documented activities, exclusively focused upon the immediate, particular objects of their sense consciousness. They seek concrete sensible rewards readily available in the present. Such documented observations are entirely consistent with the purely sentient character of the matter-dependent mode of existence specific to animals.

Apes have no proper concept of time in terms of knowing the past as past or the future as future. Nor do they offer simply descriptive comment or pose questions about the contents of the passing world—not even as a small child does when he asks his father why he shaves or tells his mother she is a good cook even though his stomach is now full.

Time and again it is evident that the most pressing obsession of any ape is the immediate acquisition of a banana (or its equivalent). It has little concern for the sorts of speculative inquiry about that same object which would concern a botanist.

In fact, the whole experiential world of apes is so limited that researchers are severely restricted in terms of their selection of motivational tools capable of use in engaging them to perform or dialogue. Hediger laments:

Therefore there remain the essential daily needs, above all metabolism, food and drink, social and sexual contact, rest and activity, play and comfort, conditions of environment in connection with the sensations of pleasure and dislike, some objects, and possibly a few more things. This is indeed rather modest.31

Small wonder the apes will neither philosophize nor clean their cages!

We have seen above that much of ape-communicative skills can be explained in terms of simple imitation or unintentional cuing. Even in the carefully controlled experiments designed to lessen or eliminate all cuing, the factor of human influence in the extensive training needed to get apes to initiate and continue their performance simply cannot be eliminated.

Yet, there seems to remain a legitimate need for further explanation of the impressive ape-communicative skills manifested as the product of the experiments done by Savage-Rumbaugh and others. Granted, exhaustive training may explain why these chimpanzees and gorillas act in fashions never seen in the state of nature. Yet, this does not fully avoid the need to explain the remarkable character of the behaviour produced by this admittedly artificial state into which the animals have been thrust by human imposition.

In the first place, it must be noted that there is no undisputed evidence of ape-language skills which exceed the domain of the association of sensible images. Even the categorization of things like tools and actions does not exceed the sensible abilities of lower species, e.g., the ability of a bird to recognize selectively the objects which are suitable for nest building. Nor does even the ability to “label labels” exceed, in principle, the province of the association of internal images. To top

Intellective Activity

It should be observed here that the nature of intellectual knowledge does not consist merely in the ability to recognize common sensible characteristics or sensible phenomena which are associated with a given type of object or action. Such sentient recognition is evident in all species of animals whenever they respond in consistent fashion to like stimuli, as we see in the case of the wolf sensing any and all sheep as the object of his appetite.

On the contrary, the intellect penetrates beyond the sensible appearances of things to their essential nature. Even at the level of its first act (that is, simple apprehension or abstraction), the intellect “reads within” the sensible qualities of an entity—thereby grasping intelligible aspects which it raises to the level of the universal concept. Thus, while we can imagine the sensible qualities of an individual triangle, we cannot imagine the universal essence of triangularity—since a three-sided plane figure can be expressed in infinitely varied shapes and sizes. Yet, the concept of triangularity is a proper object of intellectual understanding. Thus, the essence of conceiving the universal consists, not merely in an association of similar sensible forms, but in the formation of a concept abstracted from the individuating, singularizing influence of matter and freed from all the sensible qualities which can exist only in an individual, concrete object or action.

So too, the correct identification of, communication about, and employment of an appropriate tool by a chimpanzee (in order to obtain food) is no assurance of true intellectual understanding. Indeed, a spider which weaves its web to catch insects is repeatedly creating the same type of tool designed exquisitely to catch the same type of victim. Yet, does anyone believe that this instinctive behaviour bespeaks true intellectual understanding of the means-end relation on the part of the spider? Hardly! The evident lack of intelligence in the spider is manifest the moment it is asked to perform any feat or task outside its fixed instinctive patterns.

Whether “programmed” by instinct, as in the case of the spider, or by man, as in the case of the chimpanzee, each animal is simply playing out its proper role in accord with pre-programmed habits based upon recognition or association of sensibly similar conditions. Certainly, no ape or any other brute animal understands the means as means, the end as end, and the relation of means to end as such. The sense is ordered to the particular; only intellect understands the universal.

One may ask, “How do we know that the ape does not understand the intrinsic nature of the objects or ”labels“ he has been trained to manipulate?” The answer is that, just like the spider which cannot perform outside its “programmed” instincts, so too, the ape—while appearing to act quite “intelligently” within the ambit of its meticulous training, yet exhibits neither the originality nor creative progress which man manifests when he invents at will his own languages and builds great civilizations and, yes, keeps his own “cages” clean!

Therefore, while it is clear that certain apes have been trained to associate impressive numbers of signs with objects, it is also clear that the mere association of images with signs and objects, or even of images with other images, does not constitute evidence of intellectual understanding of the intrinsic nature of anything. And it is precisely such acts of understanding which remain the exclusive domain of the human species.

Yet, the field of contest of ape-language studies is centred not only upon the first act of the intellect discussed above, but also upon the second and third acts of the intellect, i.e., upon judgment and reasoning. Thus Chevalier-Skolnikoff insists that the chimpanzee, Washoe, and the gorilla, Koko, exhibit true grammatical competence as, for example:

“breakfast eat some cookie eat,” signed by Koko at 5 years 6 months and “please tickle more, come Roger tickle,” “you me go peek-a-boo,” and “you me go out hurry,” signed by Washoe at about 3 years 9 months. Besides providing new information, the structures of these phrases (like those of the novel compound names) imply that they are intentionally planned sequences.32

It is in the expression of such “intentionally planned sequences” that Koko is reported to have argued with and corrected others, e.g., when Koko pointed to squash on a plate and her teacher signed “potato.” Koko is reported to have signed “Wrong, squash.”33

Even if one is disposed to accept the intrinsically anecdotal character of all such data, we must remember the inherent danger of anthropomorphic inferences warned against by Walker, the Sebeoks, and others. As Walker concludes, because of the necessary interaction with a human companion during such communication, “there is virtually no evidence of this kind which is not vulnerable to the charge that the human contact determined the sequence of combinations observed.”34

And while it is not evident precisely how the animal was trained to sign “wrong” or otherwise indicate a negative, such a sign when associated with a correct response (e.g., “squash”) need not reflect a genuinely intellectual judgment. The correct response itself is simply proper categorization which is the product of training. Its association with a negative word-sign like “wrong” or “no” may simply be a sign which is trained to be elicited whenever the interlocutor’s words or signs do not fit the situation. The presumption of intellectual reflection and negative judgments in such cases constitute rank anthropomorphism in the absence of other specifically human characteristics, e.g., there appears to be no data whatever recording a “correction” or “argument” entailing a progressive process of reasoning. Rather, two signs, such as “No, gorilla” or “Wrong, squash” constitute the entire “argument.” Compare such simple “denials” to the lengthy syllogistic arguments—often of many steps—offered in human debate. The apes, at best, appear to offer us merely small collections of associated simple signs—usually united only by the desire to attain an immediate sensible reward.

As noted earlier, apes have been reported to sign to other apes.35 They have even been reported to sign to themselves when alone.36 Such behaviour, though striking, simply reflects the force of habit. Once the proper associations of images to hand signs have been well established, the tendency to respond in similar fashion in similar contexts—whether in the presence of man or another ape or even in solitude—is hardly remarkable.

Critiquing the Research Data

Perhaps the most stinging defection from the ranks of those advocating an ape’s grammatical competence is that of H. S. Terrace. His own research project, whose subject was a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, eventually led him to question the legitimacy of initially favourable results. He then began a complete re- evaluation of his own prior data as well as that which was available from other such projects. Terrace now insists that careful analysis of all ape-language studies fails to demonstrate that apes possess grammatical competence.

Terrace suggests that in two studies using artificial language devices what the chimpanzees “learned was to produce rote sequences of the type ABCX, where A, B, and C are nonsense symbols and X is a meaningful element.”37 Thus, he argues, while the sign “apple” might have meaning for the chimpanzee, Lana,

it is doubtful that, in producing the sequence please machine give apple, Lana understood the meanings of please machine and give, let alone the relationships between these symbols that would apply in actual sentences.38

Terrace points to the importance of sign order in demonstrating simple constructions, such as subject-verb-object, and then criticizes the Gardners for failing to publish any data on sign order regarding Washoe.39

Perhaps the single most important contribution of Terrace has been his effort “to collect and to analyse a large corpus of a chimpanzee’s sign combinations for regularities of sign order.”40 Moreover, he initiated:

a painstaking analysis of videotapes of Nim’s and his teacher’s signing. These tapes revealed much about the nature of Nim’s signing that could not be seen with the naked eye. Indeed they were so rich in information that it took as much as one hour to transcribe a single minute of tape.41

These careful examinations of Nim’s signing activities lead Terrace to conclude:

An ape signs mainly in response to his teachers’ urgings, in order to obtain certain objects or activities. Combinations of signs are not used creatively to generate particular meanings. Instead, they are used for emphasis or in response to the teacher’s unwitting demands that the ape produce as many contextually relevant signs as possible.42

Terrace points out the difficulty involved in attempting to evaluate the performance of the other signing apes:

because discourse analyses of other signing apes have yet to be published. Also, as mentioned earlier, published accounts of an ape’s combinations of signs have centred around anecdotes and not around exhaustive listings of all combinations.43

Seidenberg and Petitto raise similar objections to the anecdotal foundation for some of the most significant claims made on behalf of apes:

A small number of anecdotes are repeatedly cited in discussions of the apes’ linguistic skills. However, they support numerous interpretations, only the very strongest of which is the one the ape researchers prefer, i.e., that the ape was signing “creatively.” These anecdotes are so vague that they cannot carry the weight of evidence which they have been assigned. Nonetheless, two important claims—that the apes could combine signs creatively into novel sequences, and that their utterances showed evidence of syntactic structure—are based exclusively upon anecdote.44

Terrace also states that he has carefully examined films and videotape transcripts of other apes, specifically Washoe and Koko. Regarding the former, he concludes, “In short, discourse analysis makes Washoe’s linguistic achievement less remarkable than it might seem at first.”45 Terrace also examined four transcripts providing data on two other signing chimpanzees, Ally and Booee. Finally, he summarizes his findings:

Nim’s, Washoe’s, Ally’s, Booee’s, and Koko’s use of signs suggests a type of interaction between an ape and its trainer that has little to do with human language. In each instance the sole function of the ape’s signing appears to be to request various rewards that can be obtained only by signing. Little, if any, evidence is available that an ape signs in order to exchange information with its trainer, as opposed to simply demanding some object or activity.46

Following on similar criticisms by Terrace, Seidenberg and Petitto point out the simple absence of data supporting the claims that apes show linguistic competence:

The primary data in a study of ape language must include a large corpus of utterances, a substantial number of which are analyzed in terms of the contexts in which they occurred. No corpus exists of the utterances of any ape for whom linguistic abilities are claimed.47

Terrace’s Nim Chimpsky, of course, is one chimpanzee for whom linguistic ability was not claimed by his researcher. It is therefore significant that the data collected on the Nim project is, by far, the most exhaustive:

The data of Terrace et al. on Nim are more robust than those offered by other ape researchers. Although their data are limited in several respects, they are the only systematic data on any signing ape.48

If the above citation is factually correct, it means that the ape- language studies fall into two categories: (1) the Nim project, which is based upon “systematic data,” but whose researcher could find “no evidence of an ape’s grammatical competence” and (2) the rest of the projects, for whose subjects various claims of linguistic competence have been made, but none of which are based upon “systematic data.”

Another weakness in the data—one which afflicts even the Nim project—is the practice of simply deleting signs which are immediately repeated:

In comparing Nim’s multisign utterances and mean length of utterances (MLU) to those of children, it is important to realize that all contiguous repetitions were deleted. In this respect, Terrace et al. follow the practice established by the other ape researchers. The repetitions in ape signing constitute one of the primary differences between their behaviour and the language of deaf and hearing children, yet they have always been eliminated from analyses.49

Needless to observe, the deletion of such uselessly repeated “words” would tend to make an ape’s recorded “speech” appear much more intelligible and meaningful than it actually is.

In a noteworthy understatement, Seidenberg and Petitto conclude, “There are numerous methodological problems with this research.”50

Even if all available data from ape-language studies—anecdotal and otherwise—were to be accepted at face value the legitimacy of claims about apes understanding the meanings of their signs, creating new word complexes, deceiving, lying, reasoning, etc., need not be recognized in the sense of providing proof of the possession of genuine intellectual powers on their part.

For it must be remembered that contemporary electronic computers can be programmed to simulate many of these behaviours—and, probably, in principle, all of them. Walker points out some of these capabilities:

Already there are computers which can recognise simple spoken instructions, and there are computer programs which can play the part of a psychotherapist in interchanges with real patients (Holden, 1977), so the inability of machines to conduct low-grade conversations is no longer such a strong point.51

If a computer can hold its own with real patients while feigning the role of a psychotherapist, it should surely be able to perform many of the functions of signing apes. Clearly, given appropriate sensing devices and robotics, even the most impressive, non-cued Savage-Rumbaugh experimental results could easily be simulated by computers—even by pairs of computers exhibiting the co-operative exchange of information and objects as was seen in the activities of the chimpanzees, Sherman and Austin.52 This would include the ability to “label labels,” e.g., to respond to the arbitrary pattern for banana by pressing the key meaning food.53 Such performance may seem remarkable in an ape, but it would be literal child’s play to a properly programmed computer.

Again, programming a computer to “deceive” or “lie to” an interrogator is no great feat—although Woodruff and Premack apparently spent considerable time and effort creating an environment which, in effect, “programmed” chimpanzees to engage in just such unworthy conduct!54

Certainly there are, as yet, no reports about apes having learned to play chess. Yet, Walker reports:

Pocket-sized computers are now available that can play chess at a typical, if not outstanding, human level, accompanied by a rudimentary attempt at conversation about the game. . . . In the face of modern electronic technology, though, it is less obvious that it is impossible for physical devices to achieve human flexibility than it was in the seventeenth century.55

Evidently then, the electronic computer is capable of engaging in “low-grade conversations”—and this, probably in a manner which would well outstrip its nearest ape competitors.

While it must be conceded that all of the abovementioned capabilities of electronic computers presuppose the agency of very intelligent human computer programmers, yet the correlative “programming” of apes must be understood to occur as a result of deliberate human training, unintentional cuing, and unavoidable human influence upon the animals.

On the other hand, it must be recognized that the capabilities of apes equal or exceed those of computers in several significant respects. In the first place, the number of neurons in an ape’s brain has been put at about 5 X 109.56 This certainly constitutes an impressive amount of almost instantaneously available “core storage.” Moreover, while it is possible to attach elaborate “sensing” devices to provide input data to a computer, nothing devised by man can match the natural abilities of the multiple external and internal senses found in higher animals, including the apes. Hence, their ability to sense and categorize a banana as food is simply part of their natural “equipment.” Finally, while extensive and complex robotic devices are now becoming an essential ingredient in various computer-controlled manufacturing processes, an ape’s limbs, hands, and feet afford him a comprehensive dexterity unmatched by that of any single machine.

The point of all this is simply that none of the performances exhibited by language-trained apes exceeds in principle the capacities of electronic computers. And yet, electronic computers simply manipulate data. They experience neither intellectual nor even sentient knowledge and, in fact, do not even possess that unity of existence which is proper to a single substance. A computer is merely a pile of cleverly constructed electronic parts conjoined to form an accidental, functional unity which serves man’s purpose.

It is in no way surprising, then, that man should be able to “program” apes to perform in the manner reported by researchers. For these apes have, indeed, become, as Heini Hediger so adroitly points out, artifacts—through the language and tasks which we humans have imposed upon them.57

The force of much of the above argument from analogy will be lost upon those who do not understand why we state that computers possess neither substantial existence and unity nor any sentient or intellectual knowledge. Our claims may seem especially gratuitous in an age in which various computer experts proclaim the imminent possibility of success in the search for artificial intelligence through the science of cybernetics.

Yet, it would appear to be sheer absurdity to suggest that the elementary components of complicated contemporary computers—whether considered singly or in concert—could conceivably experience anything whatsoever. For no non-living substance—whether it be an atom, a molecule, a rock, or even an electronic chip—is itself capable of sensation or intellection.

On the other hand, what answer can be given to the sceptic’s seemingly absurd, but elusively difficult, query: “How can we be so certain that some form of consciousness, or at least the potency for consciousness, is not present in the apparently inanimate parts used to compose a modern computer? As any novice logician is well aware, the problems inherent in the demonstration of any negative are substantive. Hence, the challenge of proving that inanimate objects are truly non-living, non-sensing, non-thinking, etc., is difficult—the moment, of course, that one is prepared to take the issue at all seriously.

Clearly, potentialities for sensation and intellection as well as other life activities do exist—but only as faculties (operative potencies) of already living things. These powers are secondary qualities inherent in and proper to the various living species—which properties flow from their very essence and are put into act by the apprehension of the appropriate formal object. Thus, the potency for sight in an animal is a sensitive faculty of its substantial form (soul) which enables the animal to see actually when it is put into act by the presence of its proper sense object (colour). This is not the same at all as suggesting that inanimate objects as such might possess such potencies or faculties.

Despite its apparent difficulty, though, it is indeed possible to demonstrate that the universal absence of specific life activities—both in the individual and in all other things of the same essential type—shows that those life qualities are utterly outside of or missing from such a nature. Or, to put the matter affirmatively, the presence of a given form necessarily implies its formal effects, i.e., if a thing is alive, it must manifest its life activities; if sensation is a power of its nature, it must, at least at times, actually sense. That a power should exist in a given species, but never be found in act, is absolutely impossible. This fundamental truth can be shown as follows.

According to the utter certitude which is offered by the science of metaphysics, there must exist a sufficient reason why a given thing consistently exhibits certain qualities or activities, but not others. For instance, if a non-living thing, such as a rock, manifests the qualities of extension and mass, yet never exhibits any life activities, e.g., nutrition, growth, or reproduction, then either such life powers must be absent from its nature altogether, or else, if present, there must be some sufficient reason why such powers are never exhibited in act. And that reason must be either intrinsic or extrinsic to its nature. If it is extrinsic, then it would have to be accidental to the nature, and thus, caused. As St. Thomas Aquinas observes:

Everything that is in something per accidens, since it is extraneous to its nature, must be found in it by reason of some exterior cause.58

Moreover, what does not flow from the very essence of a thing cannot be found to occur universally in that thing—even if it be the universal absence of a quality or activity. For, as St. Thomas Aquinas also points out:

The power of every agent [which acts] through necessity of nature is determined to one effect, and therefore it is that every natural [agent] comes always in the same way, unless there should be an impediment.59

Hence, while an extrinsic cause might occasionally interfere with the vital activities of a living thing, such suppression of the nature’s activities is relatively rare—and surely, never universal. Thus, the ability to reproduce may be suppressed by an extrinsic cause in a few individuals in a species, but most will reproduce. On the other hand, if reproduction were absent in every member of a species, e.g., rocks, then the absence of such activity must be attributed directly to the essence itself.

But if a thing is said to possess a power or potency to a certain act by its very essence, and yet, that selfsame essence is said to be responsible for its never actually exercising such a power, then such an essence becomes self-contradictory—since that essence would then be responsible both for its substance essentially being able to possess that quality and for it never being able actually to possess that same quality. The same essence would then be the reason why a thing is able to be alive or conscious and also, at the same time, the reason why that same thing is never able to be alive or conscious. This is clearly both absurd and impossible.

Moreover, Aristotle defines nature as “a source or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily….60 But a nature which would also be the reason for a thing not moving or resting would clearly contradict itself.

From all this it follows that if a quality or activity is lacking in each and every member of a species of things, it is absent neither by accident nor as a positive effect of the essence—but simply because such quality or activity does not belong to its essence at all. Hence, non-living things have no life powers within their natures. They can gain life powers only by undergoing a substantial change, that is, by somehow becoming assimilated into the very substance of a living thing, as when a tree absorbs nutrients from the soil and then turns them into its very self.

But such is clearly not what happens when inanimate parts are artificially joined together into an accidental, functional unity such as an electronic computer. Thus, none of a computer’s individual parts which are inanimate in themselves can exhibit the properties of life, sensation, or intellection. Nor can any combination of such non-living entities—even if formed into a highly complex functional unity—achieve the activities of perception or thought, since these noetic perfections transcend utterly the individual natures, and thus, the natural limitations, of its components.

Since it is an artificial composite of many substances, a computer constitutes merely an accidental unity. As such, no accidental perfection can exist in it which is not grounded in the natures of its constituent elements. It is a perennial temptation to engage in the metaphysical slight of hand of suggesting that somehow the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts, that the total collectivity can exhibit qualities of existence found in none of its elements. In this strange way, like Pinocchio, the computer is averred to take on suddenly all the properties of a living substance—to sense and to think.

But such is the stuff of fantasy. It is to commit the fallacy of composition—to attribute to the whole qualities found in none of its parts. It is like suggesting that an infinite multitude of idiots could somehow—if only properly arranged—constitute a single genius. The fundamental obstacle to all such speculation is the principle of sufficient reason. For the non-living, as such, offers no existential foundation for the properties of life. And merely accidental rearrangements of essentially non-living components provide no sufficient reason for the positing of the essentially higher activities found in living things—unless there takes place the sort of substantial change described above. And such substantial changes are found solely in the presently constituted natural order of things, i.e., by assimilation or generation.

Since the hylemorphist philosopher understands that the substantial unity of things above the atomic level depends upon some unifying principle, i.e., the substantial form, he knows that only natural unities possessing appropriate cognitive faculties of sensation or intellection can actually know anything. Thus a “sensing device” such as a television set running in an empty room actually senses nothing. It cannot see its own picture or hear its own sound. No genuine perception can occur until, say, a dog stumbles into the room and glances at the set in operation. The dog can see and hear the set precisely because the dog is a natural living substantial unity whose primary matter is specified and unified by a substantial form (its soul) which possesses the sense faculties of sight and hearing. Absent the sensitive soul, the most complex “sensing device” knows nothing of the sense data it records. Absent the intellectual soul, a “thinking” machine understands nothing of the intelligible data it manipulates nor even is it aware of its own existence. A computer could well be programmed to pronounce, “Cogito ergo sum,” and yet remain completely unaware of its own existence or anything else. To top

Godel’s Theorem

The inherent limitations of any electronic computer were unintentionally underlined by the German mathematician Kurt Godel in 1930 when he proposed his famed incompleteness theorem to the Vienna Academy of Sciences. Expressed in disarmingly simply terms, the theorem states “that even in the elementary parts of arithmetic there are propositions which cannot be proved or disproved in that system.”61 Godel himself initially vastly underestimated the profound implications of his theorem. Among these were (1) that it struck “a fatal blow to Hilbert’s great program to formalize the whole of mathematics…”62 and (2) that it “cuts the ground under the efforts that view machines… as adequate models of the mind.”63

The distinguished theologian and physicist Stanley L. Jaki spells out the impact of the incompleteness theorem on the question of computer consciousness:

Actually, when a machine is requested to prove that “a specific formula is unprovable in a particular system,” one expects the machine to be self-conscious, or in other words, that it knows that it knows it, and that it knows that it knows it that it knows it, and so forth ad infinitum…. A machine would always need an extra part to reflect on its own performance, and therein lies the Achilles heel of the reasoning according to which a machine with a sufficiently high degree of complexity will become conscious. Regardless of how one defines consciousness, such a machine, as long as it is a machine in the accepted sense of the word, will not and cannot be fully self-conscious. It will not be able to reflect on its last sector of consciousness.64

Despite the logical adroitness of this analysis, we must, of course, remember that in truth and in fact machines possess no psychic faculties at all. They actually have neither even the most immediate level of reflection nor any form of consciousness whatever.

What Godel’s theorem simply implies is that men are not machines—that computers (because they have not a spiritual intellect) are unable to know the truth of their own “judgments” since they lack the capacity for self-reflective consciousness.

This analysis of computer deficiency based upon the incompleteness theorem is offered simply to demonstrate that, although computers may be able to simulate the abilities of language-trained apes, their computations, nonetheless, remain essentially inferior to human cognitive abilities. In truth, neither apes nor computers are capable of genuinely self-reflective acts of intellection since such acts are possible for creatures with spiritual intellects alone, e.g., man.65

Nonetheless, the fact that electronic computers—having neither sensation nor intellection nor even life itself—could, in principle, be designed and programmed so as to imitate, or even exceed, the skills of language-trained apes is sufficient evidence that ape-language studies pose no threat to man’s uniqueness as a species. Nor do the studies cast in any doubt man’s uniquely spiritual nature—as distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom.

One striking bit of information drawn from the history of ape- language studies has been saved until this point in our study in order to underscore the radical difference between man and lesser primates. It demonstrates, as Paul Bouissac points out, that the animal’s perspective on what is going on may differ radically from our own. Now no language-trained ape possesses a greater reputation for linguistic expertise and presumed civility than the female chimpanzee, Washoe. It is therefore rather appalling to learn of the following incident reported by Bouissac:

There are indeed indications that accidents are not infrequent, although they have never been publicized; the recent attack of the celebrated “Washoe” on Karl Pribram, in which the eminent psychologist lost a finger (personal communication, June 13, 1980) was undoubtedly triggered by a situation that was not perceived in the same manner by the chimpanzee and her human keepers and mentors.66

In pointing to the divergence of perspective between man and ape, Bouissac may well understate the problem. Washoe would have been about 15 years old at the time of the attack. Needless to say, humans of that age have virtually never been recorded as even attempting to bite their teachers—and this would seem especially true of outstanding students!

This clear-cut evidence that animals—even apes—simply do not perceive the communicative context in the same way that man does demonstrates the degree to which the anthropomorphic fallacy has overtaken many researchers—despite their claims of caution in this regard. To top

A Positive Demonstration

While much of the preceding discussion pertinent to man’s uniqueness as a species has focused upon signs of his spiritual nature and, to an even greater degree, upon the failure of lower animals to demonstrate any intellectual ability, philosopher and theologian Austin M. Woodbury, S.M., approaches the question with a fresh and more decisive perspective.67 He points out that the effort to explain all animal behaviour in terms of sensation alone could never be completed and might produce no more than a probable conclusion because of the complexity of the task. One need only consider the endless anecdotal data to be examined.68 To avoid the logical weakness of this negative approach, Woodbury proposes an appropriate remedy by seeking direct and positive proof that brutes are lacking in the necessary effects or signs of intelligence.69

For, he argues, the necessary effects of intellect are four: speech, progress, knowledge of relations, and knowledge of immaterial objects. Since each of these is a necessary effect, “if it be shown that even one of these signs of intellect is lacking to ‘brutes’, then it is positively proved that ‘brutes’ are devoid of intellect.”70 In fact, Woodbury argues that brute animals are in default in all four areas.

While the most significant ape-language experiments were conducted after Woodbury wrote his Psychology, nonetheless his insistence on the absence of true speech among brute animals remains correct as we have seen above. He points out that animals possess the organs of voice (or, we might note, the hands to make signs), the appropriate sensible images, and the inclination to manifest their psychic states—but they do not manifest true speech since they lack intellect.71

What Woodbury seems to be saying is that, if brute animals actually possessed intellect, they would have long ago developed their own forms of communication expressed in arbitrary or conventional signs. Their failure to do so is manifest evidence of the absence of intellect. On the contrary, since all men do possess intellect, all men develop speech.72 While he does not, of course, make reference here to the signing apes, it is clear that their behaviour is to be explained by imitation and the association of images. While man may impose signing upon such animals artificially, their failure to have developed language on their own and in their natural habitat demonstrates lack of true speech. That animals possess natural signs is conceded, but irrelevant.

Neither do animals present evidence of genuine progress. Woodbury points out that “from intellect by natural necessity follows progress in works, knowledges and sciences, arts and virtue.”73 While he grants that animals do learn from experience, imitation, and training, yet, because they lack the capacity for intellectual self-reflection, they are unable to correct themselves—an ability absolutely essential to true progress.

Even in the most “primitive” societies, true men make progress as individuals. For children learn language, arts, complex tribal organization, complex legal systems, and religious rites.74 Woodbury notes, “Moreover, the lowest of such peoples can be raised by education to very high culture.”75

Woodbury points out that the appetite to make deliberate progress is inherent in a being endowed with intellect and will. For as the intellect naturally seeks the universal truth and the will seeks the infinite good, no finite truth or good offers complete satisfaction. Thus man, both as a species and as an individual, seeks continually to correct and perfect himself. While apes are ever content to satisfy the same sensitive urges, men erect the ever-advancing technology and culture which mark the progress of civilization. The failure of animals to make anything but accidental improvements—except when the intellect of man imposes itself upon them through training—proves the utter absence of intellect within their natures.

Commenting on his third sign that intellect is lacking in animals, Woodbury observes that brute animals lack a formal knowledge of relations. They fail to understand the means-end relationship in its formal significance. And, while men grasp the formal character of the cause-effect relationship in terms of being itself, animals are limited merely to perceiving and associating a succession of events.76

Woodbury distinguishes between possessing a universal understanding of the ontological nature of means in relation to ends as opposed to possessing a merely sensitive knowledge of related singular things. Lower animals reveal their lack of such understanding whenever conditions change so as to make the ordinarily attained end of their instinctive activity unobtainable. For they then show a lack of versatility in devising a substitute means to that end. Also, they will continue to repeat the now utterly futile action which instinct presses upon them. Woodbury offers this example:

Thus apes, accustomed to perch themselves on a box to reach fruit, if the box be absent, place on the ground beneath the fruit a sheet of paper and perch themselves thereupon.77

This same example reveals how lower animals “show no knowledge of distinction between causality and succession….”78 Clearly, had they any understanding of causality, the apes would not conceive a “sheet of paper” as causally capable of lifting them significantly toward the fruit.

The fourth and final sign that intellect is clearly lacking in animals pertains to knowledge of immaterial things. Woodbury points out that our intellectual nature impels us to a knowledge of science, the exercise of free choice, the living of a moral life, the exercise of religion, etc.79 Such abstract and evidently supra-temporal objects are so clearly absent in the life of apes and other animals as to need no further comment.

Thus we see that brute animals, including apes, are clearly lacking in all four of the necessary formal effects of intellect, that is, speech, progress, knowledge of relations, and knowledge of immaterial objects. From this it follows with apodictic certitude that lower animals must lack the intellective faculties. To top

Image and Concept

Perhaps the most important distinction to be kept in mind when attempting to understand animal behaviour is that offered by Woodbury when he discusses the intellectual knowing of universal concepts as opposed to the knowledge had through a common image or common scheme—since it is very tempting to identify the two, as materialists are so prone to do. He presents this definition of the common image:


Since the entire sensitive life of apes and lower animals (including the phenomena associated with signing behaviour) is rooted in the association of images, and since common images are so frequently confused with universal concepts, one can readily understand the errors of so many modern animal researchers. They suffer the same confusion as the 18th century sensist philosopher, David Hume, who conceived images as sharply focused mental impressions and ideas as simply pale and derivative images.81 Neither he nor the modern positivistic animal researchers understand the essential distinction between the image and the concept.

And yet, it is precisely in this distinction that the radical difference between the material and spiritual orders becomes manifest. For, being rooted in the individuating, quantifying character of matter, the image is always of the singular. It is always particular, sensible, concrete and, in a word, imaginable—as one can easily imagine a single horse or even a group of horses. On the contrary, the concept—because it involves no intrinsic dependence upon matter at all—is universal in nature. It entails no sensible qualities whatever, can have varying degrees of extension when predicated, and is entirely unimaginable. No one can imagine horseness. No single image of a horse or group of horses would fit equally all horses—even though the common image of “a horse” would enable a fox to recognize sentiently the sensible similarities of all horses. In fact, this “common image” is more useful for the instinctive life of animals—for it suffices the cat to know the common image of a mouse in order that its estimative sense may sensibly recognize it as an object to be pounced upon and eaten. The intellectual understanding of the internal essence of a mouse may well be suited to the interest of the professional biologist—but it is hardly necessary or even very helpful to the famished feline predator.82

In order to see more fully the significance of the distinction between mere recognition of a common image and true intellectual apprehension of an intelligible essence, let us consider the following example: Imagine a dog, an uneducated aborigine, and a civilized man—all observing a train pulling into a station at the same time over successive days. All three would possess a common image of the train which would permit sensible recognition of the likeness of the singular things involved, i.e., the sequentially observed trains. (Whether it is, in fact, the exact same engine, cars, and caboose is irrelevant—since similar sets of singular things could be known through a common image.)

Yet, the sensible similarities are all that the dog would perceive. In addition, the civilized man would understand the essence of the train. He would grasp the intelligibility of the inner workings of the causal forces of fire on water producing steam whose expansion drives pistons to move wheels which pull the whole vehicle, cargo and passengers as well, forward in space through the passage of time.

Well enough. But what of the uneducated aborigine? What differentiates him from the dog is that, even though he may not initially know the intrinsic nature of the train, his intellect is at once searching for an answer to the why of the entire prodigy. He may make what, to us, would be amazing errors in this regard—as did the natives of Borneo who are reported to have attempted to give animal feed to cargo planes which landed there during World War II. But search the causes in being of the inner structure of the train, he certainly would! And, most importantly, with but a little explanation the aborigine would quickly come to the same basic understanding of the train as the rest of us—while the dog still would bark uselessly at its noise.

So too, when man and mouse perceive the same mousetrap what is perceived is quite different. The mouse sees the cheese; we see a potentially death-dealing trap. Small wonder, then, the divergence of perspective between psychologist Pribram and chimpanzee Washoe concerning the proper role of Pribram’s finger in the context of their “communication”! For at every level of communication it must be remembered that the perception of animals is purely sensory while that of man is both sensory and intellectual. Thus the mouse sees the cheese in a strictly sensory manner and as the object of its purely sensitive appetite. On the other hand, a man sees both sensitively and in the analogous meaning of intellectual “sight.” Thus the deadliness of the trap is evident to man alone. The mouse—from a past close call—may react in fear before the trap because it associates an image of the trap with an image of earlier (non-fatal) pain. Yet, only man knows why the mouse should be afraid.

By now it should be quite clear that the available animal studies are entirely consistent with the above explanation. Moreover, this explanation is the only one which fits the facts—since animals, as Woodbury has shown, reveal that they lack the intellectual faculties which we possess. To top


In the course of our examination of the question under investigation we have distinguished man from lower animals in two ways: First, we have demonstrated that the presently available natural scientific evidence regarding lower animal behaviour, including the recent ape-language studies, constitutes no legitimate challenge to the essential superiority of the human intellect. Second, we have presented briefly Woodbury’s positive demonstrations for the non-existence of intellect in lower animals. We have also noted many of the unique capabilities and accomplishments of man—both individually and collectively considered—which bespeak his possession of intellectual faculties which utterly transcend the world of brutes.


  1. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 75, aa. 1-7. See also Etienne Gilson, The Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York and Toronto: [Mentor-Omega], The New American Library, 1960), pp. 222-240; Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, Vol. 2, Mediaeval Philosophy, Part II (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1962), pp. 102-107; Brother Benignus, F.S.C., Nature, Knowledge, and God (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1947), pp. 188-210.
  2. November 1979, Vol. 13, No. 6.
  3. H. S. Terrace, “How Nim Chimpsky Changed My Mind,” Psychology Today, November 1979, Vol. 13, No. 6, p. 67.
  4. Suzanne Chevalier-Skolnikoff, “The Clever Hans Phenomenon, Cuing, and Ape Signing: A Piagetian Analysis of Methods for Instructing Animals” in The Clever Hans Phenomenon: Communication with Horses, Whales, Apes, and People, Thomas A. Sebeok and Robert Rosenthal, eds. (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1981), pp. 89-90.
  5. Ibid., p. 83.
  6. Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok, “Performing Animals: Secrets of the Trade” in Psychology Today, November 1979, p. 91.
  7. Ibid., p. 81.
  8. Stephen Walker, Animal Thought (London-Boston-Melbourne- Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), pp. 373-374.
  9. Duane M. Rumbaugh, “Who Feeds Clever Hans?” in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 33. See also ibid., pp. 26-34 and E. Sue Savage- Rumbaugh, “Can Apes Use Symbols to Represent Their World?” in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, pp. 35-59.
  10. Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok, “Performing Animals” in Psychology Today, p. 91.
  11. Walker, Animal Thought, p. 373.
  12. Ibid., pp. 365-367.
  13. Ibid., p. 369.
  14. Ibid., pp. 369-370.
  15. Ibid., pp. 370-371.
  16. Ibid., pp. 377-378.
  17. Ibid., p. 378.
  18. Ibid., p. 379. Please note that human beings are “educated,” not “trained.”
  19. Ibid., p. 387.
  20. Ibid., p. 357.
  21. Heini K. P. Hediger, “The Clever Hans Phenomenon from an Animal Psychologist’s Point of View” in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 5.
  22. Aristotle, On Interpretation, 1 (16a3-8).
  23. Hediger in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 9.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., p. 13.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid., p. 14.
  28. Ibid., p. 16.
  29. Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok, “Performing Animals” in Psychology Today, p. 91.
  30. Walker, Animal Thought, pp. 352-381.
  31. Hediger in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 14. In his History of Animals, VIII, 1, (589a3-589a9), Aristotle makes much the same point: “The life of animals, then, may be divided into two acts—procreation and feeding; for on these two acts all their interests and life concentrate. Their food depends chiefly on the substance of which they are severally constituted; for the source of their growth in all cases will be this substance. And whatsoever is in conformity with nature is pleasant, and all animals pursue pleasure in keeping with their nature.”
  32. Chevalier-Skolnikoff in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 83.
  33. Ibid., p. 84.
  34. Walker, Animal Thought, p. 374.
  35. Chevalier-Skolnikoff in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, pp. 89- 90.
  36. Ibid., p. 86.
  37. H. S. Terrace, “A Report to an Academy, 1980” in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 95.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid., p. 96.
  40. Ibid., p. 97.
  41. Ibid., p. 103.
  42. Ibid., pp. 107-108.
  43. Ibid., p. 108.
  44. Mark S. Seidenberg and Laura A. Petitto, “Ape Signing: Problems of Method and Interpretation” in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 116.
  45. Terrace in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 109.
  46. Ibid., pp. 109-110.
  47. Seidenberg and Petitto in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 116.
  48. Ibid., pp. 121-122.
  49. Ibid., p. 123.
  50. Ibid., p. 127.
  51. Walker, Animal Thought, p. 9.
  52. Ibid., pp. 364-370, 373.
  53. Ibid., pp. 369-370.
  54. Ibid., pp. 370-371.
  55. Ibid., pp. 10-11.
  56. According to the eminent physicist-theologian Stanley L. Jaki, the number of potential memory units in the brain is phenomenal. See his Brain, Mind and Computers (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969). He writes, “After all, the latitude between 1027, the estimated number of molecules in the brain, and 1010, the estimated number of neurons, is enormous enough to accommodate any guess, however bold, fanciful, or arbitrary.” (page 110) Since on page 115, he tells us that “the human brain… [has] …twice as many neurons as the number of neurons in the brain of apes,” we conclude that the number of neurons in the brain of apes must be 5 X 109.
  57. Hediger in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 5.
  58. Quia omne quod inest alicui per accidens, cum sit extraneum a natura eius, oportet quod conveniat ei ex aliqua exteriori causa.De Potentia Dei, q. 10, a. 4, c. Quaestiones Disputatae, 10th Edition (Taurini-Romae: Marietti, 1965).
  59. Omnis enim agentis per necessitatem naturae, virtus determinatur ad unum effectum; et inde est quod omnia naturalia semper eveniant eodem modo, nisi sit impedimentum.” Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 23, ed. (Leonine, Rome, 1888).
  60. Aristotle, Physics II, 1, 192b22-23, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 236.
  61. Jaki, Brain, Mind and Computers, p. 214.
  62. Ibid., p. 215.
  63. Ibid., p. 216.
  64. Ibid., pp. 220-221.
  65. Unlike computers, apes, of course, are alive and possess sensitive souls capable of sense consciousness—but not intellection.
  66. Paul Bouissac, “Behavior in Context: In What Sense is a Circus Animal Performing?” in The Clever Hans Phenomenon, p. 24.
  67. A. M. Woodbury, Natural Philosophy, Treatise Three, Psychology, III, Ch. 40, Art. 2 (Sydney: Aquinas Academy, 1951), pp. 432-465.
  68. Ibid., p. 437.
  69. Ibid., p. 438.
  70. Ibid.
  71. Ibid., p. 441.
  72. It is noteworthy that even a chimpanzee brought up in a human family learns no speech at all whereas a human child does so easily and quickly. While it is conceded that chimpanzees and other apes lack the vocal dexterity of man, yet it must be noted that they do possess sufficient vocal equipment to enable them to make limited attempts at speech—just as would any human suffering from a severe speech defect. Yet, apes attempt nothing of the sort.
  73. Ibid., p. 443.
  74. Ibid., p. 444.
  75. Ibid.
  76. Ibid., p. 445.
  77. Ibid., p. 447.
  78. Ibid., p. 448.
  79. Ibid.
  80. Ibid., p. 433.
  81. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Vol. I, Book I, Sect. I (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1956), pp. 11-16.
  82. Woodbury, Natural Philosophy, p. 434.

A Variation on the First Way of St. Thomas Aquinas

This article was first published in Faith & Reason, 8:1 (Spring 1982),  34-56. Permission to print kindly granted by Christendom Educational Corporation, Christendom College, Front Royal, Virginia, 22630.

Those who would deny the existence of God have long held that St. Thomas’ argument for the necessity of a Prime Mover is refutable on the grounds that things might, after all, be perpetually in motion by nature. This argument has been given new force by materialists who, capitalizing on the claim that entire cosmos is in some sense produced by molecular, atomic and subatomic motion, have seen the atom as a case in point for perpetual motion. In the philosophical analysis which follows, Dennis Bonnette explores the concepts necessary to understand why these claims are inadequate, and how atomic motion actually strengthens the position of Aquinas.

As is well known, St. Thomas Aquinas’ First Way to demonstrate the existence of God proceeds from motion which he describes as “…certain and evident to the senses.”(1) With respect to this proof, the purpose of the present investigation is two-fold: first, to examine the legitimacy of an objection posed against the proof in the name of the Newtonian principle of inertia, and second, to determine whether the very phenomenon which gives rise to that objection may not, in fact, serve as the basis for a somewhat novel approach to the existence of an Infinite Being.

The phenomenon of inertia has been raised as an objection against the First Way by those, such as scientific materialists, who see it as the obvious alternative to a Prime Mover: Things are in motion simply because they have always been in motion. In a challenge flung at the very heart of the First Way, John Hick suggests that:

…it remains possible that some things are just naturally–and conceivably eternally–in motion (in accordance with Newton’s first law) without being caused to move at all. Thus the possibility that the physical universe has had no initial state and consists eternally of matter in motion has to be excluded before the first Way can lead anywhere.(2)

What Hick is here talking about is Newton’s principle of inertia with respect to its description of bodies already in motion tending to remain in motion.(3) And it is precisely to avoid this objection that Jacques Maritain moves to safer ground:

Taking the principle of inertia as established, and even hypothetically granting it a meaning beyond the mere empiriological analysis of phenomena, it suffices, in order to reply to the objection, to note that, applied to movement in space, the axiom “Everything which moves is moved by another” ought then logically, by the very fact that motion is considered a state, to be understood as meaning “Every body which undergoes a change in regard to its state of rest or motion changes under the action of another thing.” And thus the axiom remains always true.(4)

When Maritain speaks of “hypothetically granting it (the principle of inertia) a meaning beyond the mere empiriological analysis of phenomena,” he seems to be hinting that his retreat is not really necessary. And it is precisely the ontological analysis of the phenomenon in question which will be the subject of discussion here.(5)

Before engaging in the promised analysis of inertia, it would be well to place the problem posed by inertia back into the context from which it arose, i.e., the question of whether the phenomenon of motion, or change, or coming to be, necessarily implies the existence of an Infinite Being as ultimate Cause of all becoming. In particular, this problem shall be considered from the perspective of the currently prevailing form of atheism itself, namely, scientific materialism. For atheism apparently recognizes the implicit logic of a world whose hallmark is becoming, and precisely to avoid the implications of new being, prefers to deny that anything really new appears in the cosmos.

Atheism evidences its assumption of the principle that from nothing nothing comes to be by the insistence of scientific materialism that the world is eternal — that there is nothing really new “under the sun.” It maintains that the “atoms” which compose the cosmos are the only real “things” or “substances” and that all that appears to come to be is simply the result of the spatial rearrangement of these submicroscopic cosmic entities.(6) Hence, it claims the phenomenon of change is largely illusory, save for the fundamental relative spatial alterations of “atoms” which alone account for all evolutionary development and “newness.”

Thus, to the modern day atomist, all that is real and comes to be in the cosmos could, in principle, be reduced to the relative motion of two submicroscopic particles in space (even if they be conceived as mathematical points). (7) At least two particles are required since the motion of one particle requires some point of spatial reference which is supplied by the other particle. Thus, in principle, the becoming of the entire cosmos can be reduced to the movement of particle A from point x to point y relative to particle B at point z. And it is precisely this motion of A from x to y relative to B at z which demands explanation — a motion which in the language of Aristotle would be described as an accidental change in the category of place.(8) (Should one deny this Parmenidean “static” characterization of ultimate units of matter, this would only serve to reinforce the following argument which is based upon the reality of change in the cosmos.)(9)

Now it is not possible to deny the reality of this constant change in spatial relation at the submicroscopic level of being. For scientific materialism has reduced the reality of all change at the macroscopic level of being — the level of things visible in ordinary experience — to an explanation in terms of the movement of submicroscopic “atoms.” If the large scale reality is to be explained in terms of submicroscopic reality, then the reality of the submicroscopic change itself cannot be denied without denial as well of the very cosmic evolutionary becoming which atheistic materialism so adamantly defends.

It is precisely at this point that the principle of inertia reappears. For when a cause of the motion of the submicroscopic entities is demanded, the first recourse of positivism is to the eternal momentum of the “atoms.” In fact, Victor Preller goes so far as to misinterpret the First Way of Aquinas in accordance with this very motion of matter in a state of eternal motion. He writes, “The first way generates a temporal regress.”(10) This curious reading of the First Way — a reading which seems to ignore Aquinas’ analogy of the staff which “…does not move except that it is moved by the hand”(ll) — is bolstered by Preller’s citing a text in which Aquinas speaks of a thrown body:

…the first mover, that is, the thrower, gives to the second mover, that is, air or water or any such body which can naturally move a thrown body, the power to move and to be moved. …[For] as soon as the first mover, that is the thrower, ceases to move, the air ceases to be moved, but it is still a mover, [italics Preller’s](12)

Of course, today no one would claim that air itself moves physical bodies. Nor is it particularly surprising that the phenomenon of inertia should have proven a bit mystifying to Aquinas at the time of his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. Nonetheless, a correct reading of the later and more metaphysical text of the Five Ways of the Summa Theologiae reveals clearly that his intent is to describe causality which is operative hic et nunc. Not only do we possess the reference to the “staff” moved by the “hand” in the First Way, but in the Second Way Aquinas tells us explicitly that “…removing the cause removes the effect.”(13)

Even more significantly, when he treats the proof from motion in the corresponding text of the Contra Gentiles, Aquinas states, “The mover and the thing moved must exist simultaneously.”(14) Thus, there can be no doubt but that Aquinas intends, not a temporal regress, but a simultaneous regress among proper causes, in his treatment of the proof from motion.(15) What remains is to show how such an argument retains its validity when confronted by modern objections based upon the phenomenon of inertia. Specifically, what is at issue here is whether, on the one hand, the motion of a body already in a “state” of motion is actually self-explanatory according to the principle of inertia, or whether, on the other hand, such motion yet requires some extrinsic cause as its sole adequate explanation.


Consider again the paradigm described above in which the relative motion of two particles is examined — even in terms of a constant state of inertia. Note well that two diverse perspectives pertain here: (1) that of the natural scientist and (2) that of the philosopher. To the physicist, the continued motion of particles already in a state of motion is self-explanatory, a perfect instance of Newton’s first law of motion. This observation of the modern scientist correctly describes the behavior of the phenomenon in question: a body in motion tends to remain in motion. Nevertheless, precise and correct description of a given phenomenon is not quite the same thing as giving an adequate explanation of why this phenomenon occurs. This is not to challenge the validity of Newton’s insight.(16) Rather, what is being suggested here is that, just as philosophy transcends the perinoetic world of appearances (the proper domain of the natural sciences) in order to penetrate to the dianoetic realm of substantial being itself, so too, it is legitimate in this case to demand the sufficient reason in terms of being for the real and constant change which constitutes the so-called “state” of inertia.(17)

Calling motion a “state” does not render it static. Nor does it lessen the truth that such motion entails the continuous reduction of potency to act — which reduction, as Aquinas observes, requires a cause because “…nothing can be reduced (from potency) to act except by some being in act.”(18) Maritain’s alteration of “Everything which moves is moved by another,” so as to apply only to changes in states of motion or rest, is quite unnecessary. Even the constant state of motion that is described by the principle of inertia requires a continuous extrinsic cause of such motion.(19)

But what possible cause of motion can be assigned in the model considered above in which the entire cosmos has been reduced in principle to the motion of one particle relative to another? Neither particle can be the cause of the motion: particle A cannot reduce itself from potency to act and particle B is simply taken as a point of reference. Nor, as has been shown above, does the principle of inertia really add to one’s understanding of the cause. Therefore, since the entire cosmos has been reduced, in principle, to the aforementioned elements and since neither of these adequately explains the motion in question, it follows that some cause must be posited which is entirely outside the model representing the universe. It is not necessary at this point to explore the full implications of this initial analysis. But it is important to note here that recourse to the Newtonian principle of inertia will in no way avoid the need for some continuous explanation of the phenomenon of inertia in the cosmos. Moreover, this explanation, whatever it may be, must somehow transcend the universe just as the cause of motion of the particles in the model employed above transcends the particles themselves.

From the foregoing one thing is evident: the phenomenon of inertia of bodies in a state of motion is not self-explanatory. Hence, the models of the cosmos propounded by atheistic materialism which attempt to explain the becoming of the world in terms of matter in a state of eternal motion are flawed at the heart when they rest their case upon the supposedly self-explanatory character of inertia. And having redeemed the First Way from this peculiar presumption of scientific materialism, it might now be well to re-examine cosmic becoming in terms of a model which, rather than being submicroscopic as was the first, is now taken at the super-macroscopic scale of being, i.e., in this instance what shall be considered is the entire physical universe taken all at once — conceived in all the glory of its dynamic, synergistic, evolutionary character.

What is proposed now is an analysis parallel to that of Zeno’s famous paradox of the flying arrow which at a given point in time must be at rest and hence cannot begin to move again.(20) Of course, this analysis will not be based upon the Pythagorean concept of time and space as discrete units — and it should be noted that, even in the Aristotelian continuum, motion absolutely requires the continuous positing of new aspects of reality in order to explain the process of coming to be.

The illusion of motion is created upon modern motion picture film by the rapid replacement of proximate, but slightly varied, frames of stop motion images — a succession of images so rapid (24 frames per second) that the human eye records the entire process as a continuum. In the motion picture projector, the key to the rapid succession of images lies in the function of a mechanical shuttle which operates in the film sprocket holes and which actually moves the frames one after another.

What is suggested here is an analogy between this process which produces the illusion of motion and the reality of becoming which is the hallmark of the entire cosmos — especially in the view of evolutionary materialism. Now the physical world may be said to be limited in the sense that it is expressed in some definite manner at any given time and does not express those states of being which it has not yet attained. Consider, if it were possible, that the entire cosmos would be expressed or represented on but a single frame of film. In order for the continuum of time to move forward (since time is the measure of motion), some new characteristic must come to be in the world. But, whether such a change be of one aspect only or nearly infinite in complexity as the cosmos itself would surely demand, progress in motion would require “getting to the next frame” of the film. How would this be possible? Recourse to inertia has already been ruled out above.(21) And this second model makes even more clear why this is so. For the acquisition of any new “frame” of the universe requires the addition of some characteristic or quality which, in virtue of its “newness,” is lacking in the original “frame.” Since the previous state of the universe is simply, as such, lacking the qualities or aspects of being which distinguish the new state from the previous one, it cannot possibly give to itself those very qualities which are lacking to its limited mode of being.(22) Moreover, since all that which exists in the cosmos has already been included in the frame of film which represents the earlier state of the cosmos, a further obstacle to becoming presents itself in contradistinction to the process in a movie projector. For while the projector has a shuttle which moves the film from one frame to another, the cosmos does not. For the shuttle which moves the film is outside of the frames themselves, whereas in reality everything found within the cosmos has already been included in the consideration of the previous limited state of its being. There is no “external mover” to move it to the next state.

It should now become evident that the notion of a limited cosmos in a process of evolutionary becoming and yet existing solely by itself constitutes a contradiction in terms. Because it is constantly becoming, it needs to acquire new states of reality; because it is limited to its present state of being, it has no source from which to obtain those new states. What this simply means is that, without the tidy “self-explanation” of the principle of inertia, the notion of a universe in a constant state of becoming becomes utterly unintelligible — provided one restricts one’s explanation to a limited world which, because of its limitation, lacks the very qualities which must come into being in its future states.

Zeno’s famous argument against the continued motion of the arrow rested upon the discrete nature of the Pythagorean moment in time; the argument proposed herein works equally well in the Aristotelian continuum. For limitation in being does not depend upon any supposed discrete character in the process of becoming; rather it rests upon the simple fact that, for any change to occur, something new must be posited which was not contained in the earlier state from which it is distinguished as new. The new as such was not contained in the old — otherwise it would not really be new.

Once again, a physical universe in the process of becoming can be explained only provided one posits the existence of some entity which is entirely other than the universe itself whose each and every part or element is limited by the very space-time continuum in which it manifests its being and acting. Unaided material becoming is a contradiction in being.

Putting the matter at the level of immediate human experience what this all means is, for instance, that one cannot even raise his own hand all by himself. For the very fact that one’s hand is in potency to being raised is equivalent to the fact that one is lacking in the reality-state of having one’s hand actually raised. One cannot give to himself the very quality of existence which is presently lacking — precisely because it is not in his possession in order to give it to himself. The obvious recourse of scientific materialism at this juncture is to point to the tendons, muscles, nerves, and brain which are supposed to move the hand. But this is to beg the question. For, as Aquinas points out, a cause must be simultaneous with its effect.(23) And as long as the hand is not yet actually raised, it is not raised precisely because these various moving factors are not themselves as yet fully in act, or else, the hand would already be raised. For, how can they begin to move when each of them considered in itself is also lacking in that state of actuality which would constitute its own contribution to the raising of the hand in question?

The common objection that, after all, we possess the “power” to move our limbs ignores the fact that “power” is but another name for the potency to do something and that potency as such is not act. Potency is on the side of non-being — what is able to be, but is not. The negative character of potency is clearly manifested when one ponders the uncharitable implication of suggesting that someone is “potentially quite intelligent.” Potency bespeaks what is not, not what is. The act of having one’s hand raised is precisely what is lacking to someone with his hand not raised — and all the potency in the world cannot supply for that act which is not actually present. Nor, for that matter, can any other material agent assist in the act of elevation here required unless it too gains some quality of existence which it is presently lacking. This amounts to saying that for someone else to come and raise the subject’s hand presupposes that the would-be assistant can himself overcome the same impediment to the raising of his hand — for he must raise his own hand in order to raise the hand of the subject.

Note well that what was stated above was simply that one could not raise his own hand all by himself. It was not denied that hands can be raised and frequently are. What is being denied here is that beings which lack a certain state of perfection can give that perfection to themselves. And whether one considers but one single man trying to raise his hand or the entire cosmos in a state of inertial becoming, the inference is the same: things limited to their present state of actuality cannot all by themselves account for their acquisition of new states of actuality. Something else must be posited, i.e., something which already possesses that actuality which is lacking to the unraised hand or even to the present state of the universe taken as a whole. And that something must be other than the previously considered finite components of the analysis.(24)

In light of the foregoing, certain inferences may be drawn — inferences which will move the plane of this investigation from the merely cosmological to the properly metaphysical. First, it is now evident that a purely physical universe in which motion exists — nay, in which motion is of the very definition of its nature(25) — is an entity which cannot be explained in terms of itself alone. Something else must be posited: something non-physical. Second, this non-physical entity (or entities) must constitute the ultimate explanation of all that which comes to be in the physical world, since the entire cosmos is lacking in those new qualities which arise through motion, and therefore, neither can one finite part of the cosmos adequately account for its own motion nor can one finite part adequately account for motion of yet another finite part. Third, the role played by this non-physical entity (or entities) is that of source of all that which comes to be: such being stands as cause to the effect produced. In a word, the eternal evolution of the cosmos assumed by atheistic materialism in order to avoid the existence of some transcendent spiritual cause necessarily implies just such a cause — not, at this point, necessarily a cause of the very being of the world, but certainly a cause of that being which comes to be — even if it be only the accidental being of the rearrangement of particles in space as claimed by modern atomists.

One further observation: this spiritual source itself stands entirely outside of time as well as space — for if it were subject to the form of becoming which is time, the same logic employed above would render it incapable of accounting for its own progress through time and the coming to be entailed therein.

One might well wonder at this point whether the entire above analysis may not encounter a fate which some suggest was encountered by Aristotle in his analysis of motion. That is, having discovered his first unmoved mover in Book VIII of his Physics,(26) he then seems unsure as to the exact number of these prime movers and even raises the question as to whether 47 or 55 of them may exist in Book XII of his Metaphysics!(27) How can the exact number of these spiritual causes of motion be determined? A closer examination of the nature of such a spiritual source as would be required to explain all motion may remedy this perplexity.


What is now evident is the need for an adequate source for all the new qualities of existence which are manifested among all finite beings which actually undergo change. The term “source” is used here with deliberate ambiguity because the question of the number of possible agents involved has, as yet, to be determined. What has been determined is that no physical agent can serve in this role.

That such a source must exist follows from the fact of motion in the physical world — a fact which is, as Aquinas points out, “…certain and evident to the senses.”(28) Moreover, since this very investigation has revealed the existence of at least one spiritual agent of change, the suggestion made by Garrigou-Lagrange that motion also may occur in the spiritual domain must be taken into consideration.(29) A spiritual source of any such spiritual motion must also be granted.

When one attends closely to the effect produced by the source of all becoming it becomes clear that such agency actually requires a form of causality which is appropriate to but a single Infinite Being alone. This follows from the fact that the adequate source of coming to be cannot be any finite agent since every finite agent is limited by its form with respect to that which it can cause.(30) And since limited beings, while they may function as secondary causes of that which comes to be in change, do not express all possible existence within their natures, they cannot function as the ultimate source of all new expressions of existence in a real world which is constantly coming to be. This argument will be redeveloped below with greater critical precision.

It is not denied here that limited beings — both spiritual and physical — are true causes of that which comes to be in change. Indeed, as Etienne Gilson has eloquently argued, the real causality of secondary causes is essential for adequate recognition of the infinite perfection of the First Cause.(31) Nonetheless, regardless of the number and function of secondary causes, it is evident from the foregoing that one or more agents must exist which cause the coming to be of new qualities of existence in those things which change. But that secondary causes should act all by themselves is not possible precisely because they are secondary causes. The question remains as to whether more than one being can act as the source for new qualities of existence which are manifest in reality — regardless of whether secondary causes operate or not.

A proper metaphysical analysis reveals that only one being can serve as the universal source of all new qualities of existence which appear among finite changing realities. The key to this is the recognition of the truth that to cause “new qualities of existence” is really to cause “new existence” — even if the only “newness” accorded to the finite order should be the change of relative spatial position of subatomic particles typically granted by scientific materialism or reductionism. This is so because even a mere accidental change of position in space and time constitutes a real change in the way in which a thing exists.

But it might be objected that while “new existence” is manifested by an entire new substance coming into existence, the materialist’s sole concession refers merely to an accidental alteration whose coming to be does not touch a thing’s substantial existence. Even Aquinas, following Aristotle, claims that substance alone is true being and that accidents are called beings only insofar as, through them, some substance exists in a certain manner with a certain quality.(32) For example, as Aquinas says, “…whiteness is called a being because by it something is white.”(33) Indeed, accidents are not even accorded the dignity of being said to possess “esse”–but only “inesse.”(34)

The preceding objection derives its force from an implicit denigration of accidental coming to be. While the reality of substantial existence is granted by this objection, new accidental existence is not seen as being “really real,” or, if new is real, it is not perceived as requiring the same sort of explanation which new substantial existence would entail.

An adequate response to this objection will require a disjunctive analysis of the problem posed. This is because the question of whether or not accidents may be said to possess their own real existence has been the subject of some controversy in recent decades among the followers of Aquinas themselves. Rather than attempt a definitive demonstration in terms of but one side of this dispute (which might thereby fail to convince adherents of the opposite side), this article will attempt a simultaneous solution which argues from both sides of the question — so as to demonstrate its point to adherents of either position.

On the one side is found a doctrine which more or less dominated Thomistic circles some two decades ago and which insists that accidents actually possess no existence of their own, but rather simply share in the existence of the substance in which they inhere.(35) Further, substance is not conceived as the sort of “static substrate” depicted by John Dewey in his Reconstruction in Philosophy.(36) Rather, the acquisition of a new accidental form by a substance is seen to constitute a real change in the very substance itself. The reason for this is that act is always proportioned to its corresponding potency.(37) Hence, any alteration of an act necessitates a corresponding alteration of that potential principle which receives and limits it. But accidental form is to substance as act is to potency. From this it follows that any change in the accidents which actually modify a substance must entail a corresponding change in the substance itself. From this viewpoint it is an oversimplification to employ the conventional formulation that accidents change while substance remains the same in accidental change. Rather, the composite structure of accidents and substance undergo the accidental change. Further, since there is but one act of existence in the substance and since accidental change is now seen to entail a change of the substance itself, it follows that accidental change entails that new substantial existence comes to be in the substance itself. This, of course, would require an adequate cause for new substantial existence (esse)– something whose nature could account for its coming to be. In this doctrine such “mere accidental change” would indeed “touch a thing’s substantial existence.”

On the other side of this controversy is a position which has gained greater adherence in more recent years. It insists that accidents do, indeed, possess their own existence (esse) — and do so in extramental distinction from the substance in which they inhere.(38) This somewhat more complex expression of the accident-substance relationship is summarized by Barry Brown as follows:

Although accidental being is really “other,” it is however, radically dependent. The succession of accidents upon their subject is a sequence permeated by efficient causality. …For the substantial esse is now revealed not only as the intrinsic actuation of the substantial essence, but also as the active principle of actualities other than itself: the thing’s multiple and complicated accidental being.(39)

By insisting that substantial esse is distinct from, but an efficient cause of, accidental esse, Brown expresses a doctrine on which accidental coming to be clearly constitutes the coming to be of “new existence” — new esse in the accidental order of being. And yet, by claiming that substantial existence is the cause of accidental existence, Brown makes it clear that it is not the coming to be of new existence of which he speaks. For if a substance could account for the coming to be of its own new accidental existence, it would reduce itself from potency to act, which has been ruled out earlier. While a per se accident, or property, may indeed flow from a thing’s substance, it is precisely not new in so doing, since its existence must commence at the same time as that of the substance to which it belongs. And while a contingent accident may be sustained in existence by its substance after the accident comes to be, in its very coming to be it is necessarily dependent upon some extrinsic cause, as seen above. In any case, this latter position accords to accidental change the actual coming to be of new existence in the accidental order. (Hence, the former position admits the reality of new substantial existence, while the latter admits the reality of new accidental existence.)

Now the meaning of these two types of existence—accidental and substantial—as well as the distinction which obtains between them is clarified by Gerald Phelan as follows:

Since the act of existence (esse) is always proportionate to the “whatness” of the ens of which it is the act (whether that ens be a substance or not—albedo est ens, In I Sent., d. 8, 1, 3), it is understandable that the distinctions which render various entia other than one another (real distinctions in the case of differences and diversities; distinctions of reason in the case of diverse modes of signifying) would be transferred to the “othernesses” between the acts of existence (esse) themselves.(40)

That is to say, since form is to existence as potency is to act, the extramental distinction between accidental form and substantial form requires that their acts of existence be diverse. Now it is central to this analysis of the two diverse doctrines described above to observe that while existence (esse) may be diverse with respect to the various substantial or accidental forms which it actualizes, such diversity arises only with respect to the corresponding potential principles which it actualizes — not with respect to existence considered in itself or absolutely. For existence as such transcends the ten categories of being: substance and the nine accidents,(41) Existence is analogically expressed in both substance and accidents.(42) Hence, new existence, whether substantial or accidental, absolutely requires some cause capable of producing existence as such. Whether the existence which is new be substantial or accidental in nature is, thus, irrelevant to this inquiry. What is relevant is that, according to either doctrine described above, the very nature of an evolving, dynamic cosmos — even if it be conceived as nothing but the coming to be of new accidental states constituted by “atoms” in motion — necessarily entails the constant emergence of new existence which, considered as such, demands an adequate causal explanation.

But a being acts or causes in accordance with its form which limits its mode of existence and acting.(43) The question at hand is whether any being whose nature, essence, or form fails to include or be identified with existence as such can adequately explain the coming to be of new modes of existence. Viewed from the standpoint of “qualities” taken simply in their formal character, it would seem quite possible that some limited being could communicate those qualities which it possesses to other beings. But insofar as the giving of qualities necessarily entails the giving of the existence of those qualities as well, any causality requires the existence of some cause which can actually give the act of existence itself— even if that act be only in the accidental order of existence.

Now no being can lack that which belongs to its very nature, just as a triangle cannot exist without one of its three sides.(44) Hence, existence as such cannot belong to the very nature of any limited being since existence is partially removed from that nature. Only one being can, properly speaking, cause new existence. And that must be a being whose very nature is existence itself. The reason for this is simply that a being can only cause something which is of its own nature — unless that something which it transmits comes from without by reason of an extrinsic cause.(45) But existence as such cannot be of the very nature of any limited being, since by its very limitation in being existence is removed from that thing in some respect. But if every being were lacking in existence of its own nature, then existence would belong, as such, to no existing nature. Now even an infinite multitude of those things whose natures are lacking a certain quality cannot supply that which is lacking — just as an infinite multitude of idiots would never constitute one intelligent man.(46) Therefore some being must exist which possesses existence of its very nature and which, because of this fact, possesses existence without any limitation, i.e., it is an infinite being.(47)

Since something would have to distinguish two such infinite beings from one another, one would have to possess some quality of existence which the other did not. Hence, both could not be infinite. Thus only one such infinite being can exist(48) — and this fulfills the nominal definition of God. Thus the phenomenon of inertia has been seen to require the existence of a transcendent cause of all coming to be, a single Universal Donor of all new existence in the created world. The Prime Mover is a true Creator of new existence — whether it be substantial or accidental. The major focus of this analysis has been God as observed through His activities in creating new accidental existence in the cosmos.


Because the foregoing analysis might raise certain objections insofar as it insists that to cause new existence even in the accidental order requires the creative causality of God alone, it would seem appropriate to consider a few texts in Aquinas which reveal such an analysis to be consistent with his metaphysics. First, consider Aquinas’ very definition of a cause. He writes, “…the name Cause implies a certain influence on the existence of the thing caused.”(49) Moreover, he explicitly recognizes that even causes of accidental existence are such by the power of God alone:

From this however it is clear that God is the cause of all things which operate inasmuch as they operate. For every operator is in some way a cause of being, either of substantial or accidental existence, (italics mine) But nothing is a cause of being except insofar as it acts by divine power as was shown. Therefore every operator operates through the power of God.(50)

In the above cited text Aquinas refers back to the preceding chapter of Book III of the Contra Gentiles in which he explains that the existence of all things is the proper effect of God alone, since “…in God alone is existence its own essence.”

God alone however is being through His own essence, whereas all other things are beings through participation; for in God alone is existence its own essence. Thus, the existence of every existent is the proper effect of Him. And further, everything which puts something into existence does this insofar as it acts by the power of God.(51)

It is evident that the earlier cited text is but a more specific expression of this text — with the later text extending the need for God’s power even to include the production of accidental existence, such as would occur even in the relative spatial movement of subatomic particles. That Aquinas could well concur with Newton in extending God’s creative act to the conservation of the accidental activity manifested by bodies moving in a “state” of inertia is clear from the following:

However, just as God not only has given existence to things when first they began to be, but also so long as they exist He causes existence in them, conserving things in existence, as has been shown, so also He has not only given operative powers to them when [those] things were first made, but He always causes [such powers] in things. Whence, should this divine influence cease, every operation would cease. Therefore, every operation of a thing is reduced to Him as to [its] cause. (52)

From the foregoing analysis of the phenomenon of inertia, it should be evident that God alone is the Supreme Agent who conserves the existential obedience of all natural bodies to His law. It is a mandate of the Divine Will and as Aquinas puts it, “…should this divine influence cease, every operation would cease.” This is not to say that Aquinas explicitly reckoned with the “puzzling” phenomenon of inertia in accordance with the above analysis. Rather, it is to say that inertia is an instance of motion which manifests new existence in a manner which would require the existence of God as its sole adequate explanation according to the above cosmological and metaphysical analysis — and that the foregoing analysis is consonant with the general principles of Aquinas. The more precise understanding of inertia which post-Newtonian insights have afforded permits more cogent application of Aquinas’ physical and metaphysical principles in the present inquiry than was, perhaps, possible in the mediaeval cosmology.

Finally, it should now be evident that the attempt of atheistic materialism or reductionism to explain the cosmos in terms of atomic matter in a state of perpetual evolution backfires upon its own presumptions. For, to the simple question, “Why new existence?,” it can give no reply. If it denies new existence in the universe, then it denies the very progress and becoming which evolutionary materialism trumpets. And if it admits the reality of newness in the universe — even at the level of subatomic accidental change — it finds itself at a total loss to explain its source: for within a purely finite cosmos there is no adequate explanation. Why new existence?(53) Only because there exists a Pure Act of Existence who, in His unchanging unicity, precontains in supereminent fashion all the limited perfections which are successively unfolded in the ongoing creation which is our ever-changing world. In a word, atheistic materialism implicitly presupposes theism.


  1. Certum est enim el sensu constat aliqua moveri in hoc mundo. S.T.,I\, q. 2, a. 3; Ottawa cd. Unless otherwise designated, all English translations in this article are my own.
  2. John Hick, Arguments For the Existence of God (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971) p. 40.
  3. See Isaac Newton, Optics, 111, 1, in Great Books of the Western World (Chicago-London-Toronto: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952) vol. 34, p. 540.
  4. Jacques Maritain, Approaches to God (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967) p. 39.
  5. I have already touched on this problem elsewhere. See Dennis Bonnette, Aquinas’ Proofs for God’s Existence (The Hague: Martinus-Nijhoff, 1972) pp. 99-104.
  6. For a splendid example of this sort of effort by scientific materialism to explain the origin and development of the universe without recourse to a Supreme Being, see Hans Reichenbach, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951) pp. 206-214.
  7. The term “atom” suffers an essential ambiguity. In its original Greek meaning, atoms were conceived as ultimate, indivisible, minute particles. The smug assumptions of nineteenth century reductionism which conceived the 92 elements of the periodic table as “atoms” in this Greek sense were forever shattered by the twentieth century discoveries of subatomic physics. Ever newer theories continue to emerge. Yet, whether the building units of physical reality be conceived as homogeneous material masses, centers of force, pure energy, particles, waves, or whatever, what is essential to our analysis is that they come to be either in themselves or in relation to one another. As long as change is present at the subatomic level, something new comes to be and the argument can proceed. For an analysis of various meristic theories, see Brother Benignus (Gerrity, Nature, Knowledge, and God (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1947) pp. 112-114. See also, Reichenbach. op. cit., ch. 11, “Are There Atoms?,” pp. 166-190; William A. Wallace, From A Realist Point of View (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979), Essay IX, “Are Elementary Particles Real?,” pp. 187-199.
  8. See Aristotle Physics, IV, 4, 212a7-212al9; Meta., XI, 12, 1068M5-1069al5.
  9. The ultimate dynamic position is that of “process philosophy” which identifies being with becoming. For the most devastative critique of this anti-intellectual position ever written, see Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, God: His Existence and His Nature, trans. Dom Bede Rose (St. Louis: B, Herder Book Co., 1939) pp. 164-181. See also, Joseph Dieska, “Teilhard de Chardin or Thomas Aquinas?,” Social Justice Review, March, 1967, Section #2, pp. 440-444; Joseph Dieska, “Philosophy in Catholic Higher Education,” Social Justice Review, October, 1967, p. 187.
  10. Victor Preller, Divine Science and the Science of God: A Reformulation of Thomas Aquinas (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967) p. 114.
  11. …sicut baculus non movet nisi per hoc quod est motus a manu.” S.T., I, q. 2, a. 3; Ottawa ed.
  12. The English text here is taken from Preller, op. cit. p. 113, “…primum movens, scilicet pruiiciens, del secundo moventi. scilicet aeri vel aquae vel cuicumque tali corpori quod est natum movere corpus proiectum, ut possit movere et ut possit moveri:…statim cum primum movens, idest proiiciens, cessaverit moveri, et aer cessat moveri, sed adhuc movet. In VIII Phys., 22. n. 3; Marietti ed.
  13. …remota autem causa, removetur effectus. S.T., I, q. 2, a. 3; Ottawa ed.; also, the corresponding Way of the Contra Gentiles reads, “…removing a cause, however, is to remove that of which it is a cause.” C.G., I, 13, #33.
  14. Movens et motum oportet esse simul…. C.G., I, 13; Leonine ed.
  15. See Bonnette, op. cit., pp. 75-79.
  16. As a matter of fact, according to Wallace, who cites several authorities to support his view, Newton himself did not propose his physical laws as absolute in themselves, but rather as being themselves a manifestation of the divine causality. See Wallace, op. cit., pp. 348-349.
  17. For an explanation of the distinction between perinoetic and dianoetic intellection, see Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959) pp. 202-218.
  18. …non potest aliquid reduci in actum nisi per aliquod ens in actu…. S.T., I, q. 2, a. 3; Ottawa ed.
  19. Newton himself is in explicit agreement with this philosophical conclusion. In his Optics, he writes, “The vis inertiae is a passive principle by which bodies persist in their motion or rest, receive motion in proportion to the force impressing it, and resist as much as they are resisted. By this principle alone there could never be any motion in the world. Some other principle was necessary for putting bodies into motion; and now they arc in motion, some other principle is necessary for conserving the motion.” Newton, loc. cit. Wallace writes, “The first law of motion and the concept of inertia that it involves state only partial truths. They are not verified of an entire physical reality, but rather abstract from efficient causality and its relation to compulsory motion. …looking at the truth contained in the first law from the vantage point we have now attained, it can be seen that the former attains its full stature and most intelligent justification when understood as requiring the continued application of an extrinsic mover. …Although it is not known to modern physicists, moreover, it was known to Newton, the father of their science, who knew better than they the limitations of the principles he first formulated.” Wallace, op. cit., pp. 363-364.
  20. See Zeno’s argument as given in Aristotle’s Physics, VI, 9, 239b5-239b32. See also, Wesley C. Salmon, Space. Time, and Motion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980) pp. 33-34. For a brief resume of Pythagorean pluralism and of Zeno’s dialectical attacks upon it, see Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy (Westminister, Md.: The Newman Press, 1957) vol. I, Greece and Rome, pp. 29-37, 54-60.

  1. See Section #2 above. As was pointed out, the principle of inertia merely describes the tendency of a body in motion to remain in motion; it does not explain adequately how it is possible for the continuous manifestation of new aspects of being which motion constitutes to take place. See Etienne Gilson. The Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York and Toronto: The New American Library, 1960) pp. 72-73.
  2. See S.T., I, q. 75 a. 1, ob. 1. Indeed, nothing can give to another what it does not itself actually possess — nor can it give it to itself, for the same reasons Aquinas offers to prove that nothing can reduce itself from potency to act. See C.G., I, 13, #9.
  3. “…removing the cause removes the effect.” S.T., I, q. 2, a. 3; Ottawa ed. See note 13 above.
  4. “…and as the lowest agent is found to be immediately active, thus the power of the first agent is found to be immediate to the producing of the effect. For the power of the lowest agent is not that it produced this effect of itself (ex se), but from the power of the proximate superior (agent), and it has this power by the power of a (yet) superior (agent), and thus the power of the supreme agent is found productive of the effects of itself, as if it were the immediate cause, as is evident in the principles of demonstration, of which the first is immediate.” C.G., III, 70. Leonine ed.
  5. See Aristotle, Physics, I, 2, 185al3-15.
  6. See Aristotle, Physics, VIII, 5-10, 258b4-267b26.
  7. See Aristotle, Metaphysics. XII, 8, 1073al2-1074bl4. Note that Aristotle’s criticism of the anthropomorphic character of pagan dieties belies any suggestion that he was defending polytheism merely to protect his personal welfare in a polytheistic state. See also, Aristotle, Physics, VIII, 6, 258bll, 259a6-13, 259b28-31; Copleston, ibid., pp. 315-316.
  8. S.T., I, q. 2, a. 3. See note 1 above.
  1. See Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., p. 262. That Aquinas does hold that spiritual motion exists is evident, as in the case of the will. See S.T., l-II, q. 9. a. 4.
  2. Aquinas makes clear the role of form in determining an agent’s ability to cause when he writes that “…the form, which is the first act, is for the sake of its operation, which is the second act.” “…ita forma, quae est actus primus, est propter suam operationem, quae est actus secundus… S.T., I, q. 105, a. 5; Ottawa ed.
  3. “A universe without genuine causality, or with a causality not allowed its full effect, would be a universe unworthy of God.” Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1940) p. 145. See also, C.G., III, 69.
  4. “That however is properly said to be which itself has existence (esse), subsisting, as it were, in its own existence (esse). Whence, substances alone are properly and truly called beings. An accident, in truth, does not have existence (esse), but by it something exists, and for this reason it is called a being — as whiteness is called a being because by it something is white.” S.T., I, q. 90, a. 2; Ottawa ed. See also, In VII Meta., 1, nn. 1248-1258; In XII Meta., l, nn. 2419, 2420-2422.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Aquinas writes, “…accidentis enim esse est inesse. S.T., I, q. 28, a. 2; Ottawa ed. See also, De Pot., q. 8, a. 2; Quodl., IX, q. 3, a. 1, ad. 2.
  7. Etienne Gilson seems to speak this way when he observes, “Accidents have no existence of their own to be added to that of the substance in order to complete it. They have no other existence than that of substance. For them, to exist is simply ‘to-exist-in-the-substance’ or, as it has been put, ‘their being is to-be-in’.” Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Random House, 1956) p. 31. See also George P. Klubertanz, Introduction to the Philosophy of Being (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955) pp. 231-232, n. 6; Leo Sweeney, A Metaphysics of Authentic Existentialism (Englewood Cliffs, N.Y.: Prentice-Hall, 1965) pp. 87-88, n. 44; James S. Albertson, “The Esse of Accidents According to St. Thomas,” The Modern Schoolman, XXX (May, 1953) pp. 265-278. In support of this view, such texts as the following are frequently cited: “…accidents do not seem to be beings according as they are signified according to themselves, but only according as they are signified in connection to substance.” In VII Meta., 1, n. 1256. Marietti ed. See note 32 above.
  8. According to Dewey, “…to know it (the true Being of the metaphysician) means to neglect its flux and alteration and discover some permanent form which limits the processes that alter in time. The acorn undergoes a series of changes; these are knowable only in reference to the fixed form of the oak which is the same in the entire oak species… Where such unifying and limiting eternal forms cannot be detected, there is mere aimless variation and fluctuation….” John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York: New American Library, 1952) pp. 97-98.
  1. “Potency however, since it is receptive of act, must be proportioned to that act.”; “Potentia autem cum sit receptiva actus, oportet quod actui proportionetur.” S.T., I. q. 75, a. 5, ad. 1, Ottawa ed.
  2. See Francis E. McMahon, “The Esse of Accidents: a Discussion,” The Modern Schoolman, XXXI (1953-1954) pp. 125-130; Francis McMahon and Gerald Phelan, “The Esse of Accidents,” The New Scholasticism. XLIII (1969) pp. 143-148; Barry F. Brown, “Accidental ‘Esse: A confirmation,” The New Scholasticism. XLIV (1970) pp. 133-152.
  3. Barry F. Brown, op. cit.. pp. 151-152
  4. Gerald Phelan, op. cit., p. 148.
  5. See Aristotle, Categories, Ia0-15b32.
  6. “…being (ens) is divided into ten predicaments, not univocally, as a genus (is divided) into species, but according to a diverse way of being (essendi). For the ways of being (essendi) are proportional to the ways of predicating. For in predicating something of something else, we say this to be (esse) that; and thus the ten genera of being are said of the ten predicaments.” In III Phys.. 5, n. 15; Marietti ed.
  1. “…an agent produces its like in accordance with the form by which it acts.” C.G., II, 46. Leonine ed. Also, “Since every agent acts insofar as it is in act, the mode of action must be according to the mode of the act of the thing itself; whence, something which is more hot in the act of heat causes more heat. Anything, therefore, whose act is determined to a genus, to a species, and to an accident must have its power determined to effects similar to the agent as such, because every agent produces its like.” C.G., II, 21. Leonine ed. Also, “…a being is in act through its form; it must be that operation follows its form.” C.G.. Ill, 97. Leonine ed.
  2. “…for if community was of the very notion of man. then in anything in which humanity is found, community would (also) be found.” De Ente, c. 4. n. 2. Marietti ed. Also, “…no essence is able to be understood without those (elements) which are parts of the essence.” De Ente, c. 4, n. 3. Marietti ed.
  3. As seen above in note 43, causality is limited by an agent’s nature. Now any given act of causality may be considered as a quality found in something, with respect to which Aquinas writes: “Everything which belongs to anything either is caused by the principles of its nature, as risibility in man. or else comes to it from some extrinsic principle, as light in the air from the influence of the sun.” De Ente, c. 5, n. 4. Marietti ed.
  4. Should the reader wish to pursue the question of infinite regress which often is raised in this context, he should first note that such a problem does not arise when one observes that limited being are as a class deficient with respect to the newness of existence which must needs be explained here. For a fuller treatment of this point as well as the problem of infinite regress itself, see Bonnette, op. cit., pp. 65-68, 80-126; see also, Joseph Bobik, Aquinas On Being and Essence (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965) pp. 175-182.

47 “Since therefore the divine existence (esse) is not existence (esse) received in something, but (God) Himself is His own subsistent existence (esse) as was shown above, it is manifest that God Himself is infinite and perfect.” S.T., I, q. 7, a. 1. Ottawa ed. Aquinas also notes in this same text that the ancient philosophers attributed infinitude to God
because “…they considered things to flow forth from the first principle infinitely.” This is consonant with the notion of the “Universal Donor of all new existence” referred to later in this paper.

  1. “If therefore, there were many Gods, they would have to differ from each other. Something therefore would belong to one which did not belong to another. And if that in which (they differed) were a privation, (one of them) would not be absolutely perfect; if, however, that (in which they differed) were a perfection, the other of them would be without it. It is impossible, therefore, for there to exist many Gods.” S. T., I, q. 11, a. 3. Ottawa ed.
  2. In V Meta., 1, n.751. “…nomen Causa, importat influxum quemdam ad esse causati. Marietti ed.
  3. Ex hoc autem apparet quod Deus causa est omnibus operantibus ut operentur. Omne enim operans est aliquo modo causa essendi, vel secundum esse substantiale vel accidentale. Nihil autem est causa essendi, nisi in quantum agit in virtute dei, ut ostensum est (c. 66). Omne igitur operans operatur per virtutem Dei.” C.G., III, 67. Leonine ed.
  4. Deus autem solus est ens per essentiam suam. omnia autem alia sunt entia per participationem; nam in solo Deo esse est sua essentia. Esse igitur cujuslibet exsistentis est proprius effectus ejus, ita quod omne quod producit aliquid in esse hoc facit in quantum agit in virtute Dei. C.G.,


REVIEW PUBLISHED IN ITEST (INSTITUTE FOR THEOLOGICAL ENCOUNTER WITH SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY) BULLETIN    WINTER 2003, Vol: 34, No. 1, p. 16. Reprinted with permission. Reviewer: Peter A. Pagan Aquiar, Department of Philosophy, Wheeling Jesuit University  (review of first edition) Dr. Pagan is now a member of the Department of Philosophy, Aquinas College (Nashville, TN)

Origin of the Human Species. By Dennis Bonnette. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2001. xv + 202 pp. $38.00. (out-of-print edition)  Second Edition: Sapientia Press: $16.95.

Last year PBS aired a mini-series titled Evolution. The first two-hour segment, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” provides a sympathetic portrayal of the life and thought of Charles Darwin, who is often regarded (incorrectly) as the father of evolutionary theory, while the seventh and final segment, “What About God?” explores the apparent conflict between evolutionary science and the biblical doctrine of creation as understood by religious fundamentalists. Evolution was initially aired almost five years after Pope John Paul II’s 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the question of evolution. Not a few viewed this pontifical address as a belated but inevitable recognition of the validity of Darwin’s theory.

Neither Evolution nor the preceding interpretation of the 1996 address would lead one to suspect that the question of human evolution is substantially more complicated than it appears to biblical fundamentalists or to the champions of philosophical naturalism. A careful reading of the Pope’s 1996 address reveals, among other things, that the Catholic Church’s magisterium does not endorse Darwinian evolutionary theory. Avoiding the rather common mistake of equating evolutionary theory with Darwinism broadly construed (e.g., Evolution), the Pope distinguishes between various theories of evolution and unequivocally rejects evolutionary theories based on philosophical materialism.

Given the availability of a veritable host of books and articles devoted to the history and ideas of Darwin and his followers, selecting a few essential texts in this growing field of inquiry is not a simple task. Those seeking a popular but judicious assessment of Darwin’s theory of evolution can hardly do better than to obtain George Sim Johnston’s Did Darwin Get It Right? Those interested in a more advanced philosophical treatment of evolutionary theory, especially as it touches on theological matters, will be delighted by Professor Dennis Bonnette’s Origin of the Human Species.

Employing the tools of logic, epistemology and metaphysics, Bonnette provides a systematic analysis of the delicate problem of inter-specific evolution, especially with respect to the advent of rational animals—mankind. In addition to a balanced critical summary of the debate between Darwinian evolutionists and scientific creationists, his analysis includes an illuminating examination of the different ways the term “species” is employed in scientific and philosophical discourse. One of the key strengths of this historically sensitive study is that it preserves the critical line of demarcation between empirical science and metaphysics, a line neglected too often by Darwinists and their creationist opponents. Lacking an adequate grasp of the important distinction between material being and being per se, Darwinists (e.g., Richard Dawkins) are prone to subordinate metaphysics to experimental science, to transform modern science into a metaphysical research programme as they strive to eliminate any reference to divine causality from every rational explanation of cosmic phenomena. A related temptation afflicts various creationists that strive to demonstrate the existence of an intelligent cosmic architect on the sole basis of natural science by extending science’s proper methodological boundaries. What both of the foregoing camps have in common is a misguided tendency to render to natural science more credit than it can properly claim. In such cases God is reduced, at best, to an extremely powerful but finite secondary cause. Bonnette’s approach, in contrast, steers clear of such deformed conceptions of the uncaused first cause.

Without detracting from the rational weight and authority of divine revelation, Bonnette’s interdisciplinary study affirms the invaluable contribution of experimental science in man’s quest for knowledge. Bonnette’s deep respect for the distinct methods and principles of experimental science and revealed theology enables him to reach some fascinating speculative conclusions, conclusions that challenge the convictions of those committed to simplistic biblical exegesis or to the narrow purview of scientism. For instance, one could point to his probing discussion of Adam and Eve’s origin and the question of monogenism vs. polygenism. There Bonnette defends the position that coherent evolutionary theory need not contradict a monogenetic conception of human origins if the deliverances of legitimate science and divine revelation are not misconstrued. And the nuanced reconciliation advanced by Bonnette, which avoids the anti-realist drawbacks of Stephen J. Gould’s proposed NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) principle, does not violate the autonomy of either natural science or revealed theology. Bonnette’s study lends credible support to the claim that modern science poses no genuine threat to religious orthodoxy and that such orthodoxy promotes rather than inhibits rigorous and fruitful scientific exploration.

In sum, it would be no exaggeration to claim that Origin of the Human Species is an extraordinarily erudite addition to the scholarly literature on evolutionary theory vis-à-vis the mystery of human existence.

Review of Metaphysics

This review of the first edition was originally published and copyrighted in The Review of Metaphysics; June 2003; 56, 4 – reprinted with permission. Reviewer is Dr. Curtis L. Hancock, who holds the Joseph M. Freeman Chair of Philosophy at Rockhurst University.

Review of Origin of the Human Species

By Curtis L. Hancock, Ph.D.

That Darwinism has been immune generally from philosophical and scientific criticism says something about its iconic status as a paradigm. As Alvin Plantinga has said, “Darwinian evolution has become an idol of the contemporary tribe…part of the intellectual orthodoxy of our day.” After many decades of presumptive authority as a paradigm, some philosophers and scientists are at last examining whether Darwinian theory ought to be persuasive. Dennis Bonnette’s book is an outstanding addition to this important new examination. In fourteen chapters and an epilogue, compressed into 145 pages of exposition, Dennis Bonnette summarizes both the strengths and weaknesses of modern evolutionary theory. In the first four chapters of the book he tests whether evidence for macroevolution is convincing. Relying on the unpublished manuscripts of the Australian philosopher Austin M. Woodbury, he concludes that neither the fossil record nor the fact of microevolution justifies the enthusiastic conviction, so common in the academy and even the popular culture, that macroevolution is the case. In addition to criticisms marshaled by Woodbury, creation scientists (among whom neither Woodbury nor Bonnette should be numbered) have exposed over the past several decades a number of problems endemic to the way paleontologists have interpreted the fossil record. Still, Bonnette is willing cheerfully to concede that evolution may be true: “we should remember that the weakness of arguments favoring evolution does not necessarily prove that evolution does not occur” (p. 9). As a Catholic and a philosopher, Bonnette wonders what its truth would mean for philosophy and theology. In accord with the way Catholic thinkers (for example, Augustine, Gilson, and Maritain) have commented on the subject, Bonnette argues that the doctrine of evolution, if rightly interpreted, coheres with a sound philosophy of nature, metaphysics, and theology. This conclusion, reiterated and justified throughout the book, and effectively summarized in the closing chapters, separates Bonnette’s position from that of the creation scientists, whom he treats with scrupulous fairness, as he does representatives of atheistic or naturalistic evolution.

Bonnette’s study is distinctive because it brings the classical realist tradition of the philosophia perennis to bear on the debate. Relying on the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis, Bonnette goes beyond the empiriological questions about evolution and asks what philosophy (especially the philosophy of nature) should say about the nature and origin of species, especially the origin of the human species. One of the objectives of Bonnette’s book is to make the case that it is only philosophy in the last analysis that can differentiate species. Biological taxonomy is only a descriptive classification of the accidental characteristics represented by empiriological methodologies, a kind of perinoetic knowledge (using Maritain’s vocabulary) that does not permit inference to the essence of a thing. The perinoetic is in contrast to the dianoetic, a certain way of knowing that the philosophy of nature and metaphysics employ. In light of this, the debate about evolution has its full significance as it relates to philosophy, and ultimately to theology. “As scandalous as this might sound to the professional biologist, search for essential natural species must transcend the methodology proper to the biological sciences. The limitations inherent in perinoetic intellection, the proper intentional act of biological science, mean that the quest for essential distinctions between living organisms is actually meta-biological, beyond biology. This quest requires the methodology of the philosophy of nature” (p. 22). Following Gilson, Bonnette shows that philosophically there are, in fact, only three natural species: the vegetative, the animal, and the human (chapters 2 through 8).

One of the advantages of a philosophical assessment of evolution is that one can expose the naturalistic bias in both scientific and nonscientific discourse. Bonnette agrees with Stanley Jaki that much of evolutionary theory “masks a fierce counter-metaphysics.” Naturalism is assumed but not argued for. The reader will enjoy Bonnette’s account of how this bias manifests itself in research purporting to show that apes have symbolic language and rational intelligence (chapter 5). His summary of this research is very instructive and an assist to all who want to put in perspective the exaggerated claims of these primate experiments. That summary alone makes the book a valuable addition to one’s library. When one considers that the chapter also demonstrates the weaknesses of a purely naturalistic account of the human person, it is doubly edifying.

Having distinguished the human species as different in kind from other animals, Bonnette responds to a fascinating set of questions, spanning everything from the human soul’s divine origin (chapter 6) to locating the first true humans (chapter 11). A battery of empirical, philosophical, and theological issues come to play in these discussions as the remaining chapter titles show: “The Question of Extraterrestrial Life” (chapter 7); “The Metaphysical Structure of Natural Species” (chapter 8); “Natural Science and Theology” (chapter 9); “The Truths of Revelation” (chapter 10); “Adam and Eve’s Origin” (chapter 12). An absorbing analysis of the debate over Genesis is discussed in chapter 13. And the fascinating challenge brought to orthodox paleontology by Michael Cremo’s and Richard Thompson”s book, Forbidden Archaeology, completes the volume.

It is a delight to read a work on evolution by a researcher who has a command of the relevant scientific data, the history of the debate, and its chief assumptions. It is especially delightful to read the subject as treated by a good philosopher presenting the subject in an even-handed and cogent manner. —Curtis L. Hancock, Rockhurst University.

Pastoral Life Magazine

This review of the first edition was originally published and copyrighted in Pastoral Life Magazine, Vol. 51, No. 7-8, July/August 2002 – reprinted with permission. Reviewer is Dr. Robert L. Fastiggi, Associate Professor of Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, MI.



Did Adam and Eve really exist? Was there really an historic fall from God’s grace? If evolution is true, how does it affect the dogma of original sin? In the face of such questions, some Catholics today believe it is an either/or situation in regard to evolution and the Bible. They do not understand that in addition to the alternatives of “young-earth scientific creationism” and “atheistic evolutionism,” there are other logical and scientific possibilities.

This study by Dr. Dennis Bonnette, chairman of the philosophy department at Niagara University, submits the various theories concerning the origin of the human species to rigorous critical analysis. It takes a philosopher like Bonnette, well trained in logic and epistemology, to examine the so-called “scientific claims” of naturalistic and atheistic evolutionism. The author also explores a number of related topics, including “the human soul’s spiritual character and divine origin,” “the question of extraterrestrial life” and “natural science and theology.”

The chief value of this book lies in its defense of the historicity of original sin. The author argues convincingly that there is nothing in science which shows that there was not or could not have been an historic fall from God’s grace by an original pair of humans (i.e. Adam and Eve) from whom we all descend. Bonnette, though, is not a biblical fundamentalist. Rather, he presents the alternatives of “theistic evolution” and “progressive creationism” as “philosophically possible and scientifically defensible.”

Although Bonnette does not discuss the statements on original sin and evolution by more recent popes such as Paul VI and John Paul II, his basic thesis harmonizes with the judgment of both Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. While the account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses “figurative language” it nevertheless affirms a “primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.” (see Catechism, # 390 and Gaudium et Spes, 13).

This study deserves a wide circulation among all those who take the Bible and original sin seriously. The philosophical aspects of the origin of the human species have not been adequately appreciated. This book is an excellent example of how reason can be used in defense of the faith.