Thomism: Etiology/Causation/Causality

-by Br Nicholas Hartman

“What is the difference between God’s causing something to be and my causing something to be? Francesco Silvestri, a.k.a. Ferrariensis (1474–1528), gives us some helpful tips to isolate these two main kinds of cause-and-effect—God’s causing something and a creature’s causing something.

There are a lot of different kinds of beings, and these beings don’t always have a lot in common. Sure, polar bears, ostriches, and earthworms are all animals, but how the moon or the wind or fire are all alike isn’t obvious. Furthermore, what about the kind of being that the act of scratching your head has? Or your posture? Certainly, actions and positions exist—sort of.

What absolutely everything has in common is that they all are, or they exist somehow, even though what that means in each case—for animals, actions, positions, colors, and anything else you can think of—can differ widely. Everything is alike insofar as everything has being. If something is not—it does not have being—then there’s nothing to talk about. It doesn’t share what everything else has, but it’s also not included in everything—it’s nothing (no + thing).

With this in mind, now consider what kind of cause God is. God produces things out of nothing. That means that by creating, he gives something existence—he gives something what it needs to be anything at all. He gives it being. No creature does this.

But suppose you, in your budding artistic practice, paint a canvas red to include in a museum of abstract art. You cause, not being, per se, but redness. Yet you would also seem to cause being; you cause the canvas to be red. And this should seem strange. God is absolutely the cause of being; but you also seem to be a cause of being. Is there a conflict?

Ferrariensis helps clarify how mere creatures cause being in a rather intriguing way. He explains that nothing at all can truly be separate from its being or its existence. Everything, insofar as it is anything, is. That is not to say that there is no distinction between what a thing is (essence) and its being (existence). But a thing’s essence relies on its existence at least in some way if you want to talk about anything at all.

Therefore, when you, a creature, cause a canvas to be red, there’s no way to understand your causing redness without your causing the redness to be. That is, you cause the canvas to be red. Otherwise, you would not cause anything at all. How could you cause redness in a canvas without causing the canvas to be red?

This does not mean that you, mere creature that you are, cause being out of your own resources—out of nothing. You really cause the canvas to be red, but that whole process of creaturely cause-and-effect depends on God’s causing the whole chain of causes to be at every moment.

Ferrariensis helps us to understand how we creatures cause being as a secondary effect. For you, the artist, redness is the primary effect of your painting, but being is a secondary effect, because by causing red in a canvas you cause the canvas to be red. But God causes all of it—you, your act of painting, the canvas, and the red in the canvas—to be absolutely. He holds everything in being: Being is God’s primary effect. And because you cannot cause something without causing it to be—being is a secondary effect of anything you cause—you depend on God to cause anything at all.

This means that at every moment and in everything we do, we depend fully on God to act. But it also means something very beautiful. We’re not like mere characters in a fictional book, who are not only dependent entirely on the author, but also do not have any real causality (unless you suspend disbelief). We creatures are real causes of our effects. We depend on God completely, but our actions are, in a very real way, our own.”