Aquinas and Modern Science: A New Synthesis of Faith and Reason
Paperback: Angelico Press, 2017
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Reviewed by Amy Gentile
Faith and Reason, or religion and science, are often set up as polar opposites in modern discourse. Debates on such topics as evolution or the origins of the universe can make it seem as though faith and reason are diametrically opposed, further entrenching people in both “camps”. Yet there are many wonderful scientists who remain fully committed to reason and trust in the evidence of science while also valuing the place of faith and religious thought. It is in this vein that Gerard Verschuuren writes, and his specific focus on Thomas Aquinas and Thomistic philosophy provides a unique contribution to those interested in the intersection of faith and science.
Verschuuren’s book is impressive in its scope; he begins the book by describing the historical context of Aquinas as well as outlining the broad contours of his thought. He especially focuses on: Esse, Essence, Existence, and Substance; Matter and Form; Fivefold Causality; and Primary/Secondary Causes. Here, Verschuuren does a good job of explaining Aquinas’s thought in understandable ways: the ideas are certainly complex, but the author uses helpful analogies and explains terms thoroughly to aid the reader’s comprehension. These aspects of Thomistic philosophy are then applied to very diverse fields of scientific study, encompassing everything from Physics to Biology to Neuroscience, and even the Social Sciences.
For me, one of the most interesting chapters was the one on Evolutionary Biology, perhaps because this is the realm wherein most faith/reason debates occur. Though I have heard different ways of reconciling scientific evidence and faith perspectives before, the Thomistic approach was not one that I’ve encountered before. In this chapter, Verschuuren explores how Aquinas’s five causes might apply to the field of evolutionary biology more generally, before turning a good portion of the chapter to exploring the theory of Intelligent Design. He critiques it from a biological front, but also from a philosophical front, suggesting that Aquinas would object to ID theory on the grounds that it blurs the line between “primary” and “secondary” causes by suggesting that God (the primary cause) has to constantly intervene with biological processes (secondary causes). Instead, he suggests a more Thomistic view called “cosmic design” which is instead “inherent in all of creation, rooted in autonomous secondary causes and laws of nature, which steer everything—complex and not so complex—toward an end, thus making the universe intelligible and comprehensible” (171). The Thomistic distinction between primary and secondary causes still makes room for God’s work in creation, without supplanting the tools he uses to do so. It also avoids some of the problems that ID theory may run into such as how to interpret “faulty” designs, since these faults are rooted in the (imperfect) secondary causes and not the infallible primary cause. Verschuuren’s argument is more detailed, but I certainly felt that having an understanding of Aquinas’s thought about causes was helpful and incredibly relevant to this discussion. Verschuuren extends similar kinds of arguments throughout every chapter, demonstrating how Aquinas’s thought can be applied to a variety of different scientific fields.
Though I found the summary of Aquinas’s thought and their practical applications very interesting, there were some weaknesses in the book that struck out at me as I was reading. One of the main difficulties I encountered was the style of citation, which I assume was intentional to help make the book more accessible to the average reader as opposed to more experienced scholars. Instead of having in-text citations throughout the book for the different points being made and sources quoted, there was instead just a small section “For Further Reading” at the end of each chapter, usually containing 3-5 sources. There are no footnotes or endnotes either, though there is a helpful Index. While I understand that the intent is to make the book more accessible, which is a laudable goal, it hinders more scholarly readers who really want to analyze the quotes and sources being used to help assess the strength of the argument. Especially when dealing with a scholar of the caliber of Thomas Aquinas, I think it’s important not to neglect readers who are used to more scholarly readings but perhaps aren’t already familiar with Thomistic thought. Personally, I don’t find endnotes distracting, and I think that they would have been much more helpful here than the very limited list of sources “For Further Reading.”
As a parallel to this criticism, I had hoped to see more of Aquinas’s own words, at least in the beginning sections that laid out his thought. Unfortunately, there were very few direct quotes from Aquinas throughout the book, so I missed being able to engage with Aquinas in his own words as opposed to having his principles filtered to me. There were certainly some direct quotes, but they were far fewer than I expected, and I had hoped to see much more of Aquinas’s own words in a book where he is named in the title.
These few criticisms do not negate all that is wonderful in the book, and not every reader would necessarily share my expectations. Indeed, this book is a fabulous introduction to Thomistic thought and Verschuuren does a wonderful job of suggesting applications to a variety of different fields. This breadth is very helpful—there is something in this book for everybody, no matter their area of interest. I do think Verschuuren makes a strong case for the relevance of Aquinas’s thought to modern day scientific pursuits, especially how the latter’s philosophical categories can help us examine the underpinnings of our fields. I’m not sure that the arguments in this book would convince somebody who doesn’t already believe that religion and philosophy have important things to contribute to the study of the sciences, but for readers who are already interested in this question, this book certainly can provide some new “food for thought” and push them to rediscover an incredibly important thinker in the Church’s history.