Original Immortality and the Order of the World

Earlier we discussed an argument against the idea of the fall, taken from the nature of the order of the world. This will apply in a particular way to the idea that man was immortal before the fall, if only because this is one concrete way that the idea of the fall can be understood.

It is a common young earth creationist claim that before the fall, there was no animal death at all:

Death is a sad reality that is ever present in our world, leaving behind tremendous pain and suffering. Tragically, many people shake a fist at God when faced with the loss of a loved one and are left without adequate answers from the church as to death’s existence. Unfortunately, an assumption has crept into the church which sees death as a natural part of our existence and as something that we have to put up with as opposed to it being an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) that came into God’s very good creation. This paper will argue that the biblical understanding of death, whether animal or human, physical or spiritual, views it to be a consequence of man’s disobedience towards his Creator and an intrusion into His “very good” creation.

This is not a very reasonable view, and St. Thomas argues against it in principle:

In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede’s gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals. They would not, however, on this account have been excepted from the mastership of man: as neither at present are they for that reason excepted from the mastership of God, Whose Providence has ordained all this. Of this Providence man would have been the executor, as appears even now in regard to domestic animals, since fowls are given by men as food to the trained falcon.

The creationists however have correctly perceived that the original mortality of other animals would be evidence for the original mortality of man. It would be more likely that other animals would have died, given that man was going to die as well, than given that he was not going to die, and this means that animal death is evidence for human death. The creationists are probably also correct to suppose that the story of the fall, considered as a story, implies the original absence of both animal and human death, although this is not explicitly stated. They are mistaken, however, to suppose that Genesis is intended literally.

The existence of animal death before the existence of humanity is confirmed by geology, and this does not change much with the acceptance of the theory of evolution. However, the issue at least becomes more noticeable. Given that the first humans had ancestors, this implies that whoever was first meant to be immortal, had parents and possibly siblings that were not immortal. And since evolution proceeds gradually, it is possible that the first man who was capable of moral action was not the first human (with a human soul) to exist. This would suggest that the death of human beings happened even before anyone was capable of choosing good or evil.

In any case, the particular argument considered in the previous post on the fall and the order of the world, was that an elevation of nature to a condition obtainable through secondary causes, without actually using such causes, is unlikely.

Absolute immortality does not seem to be a condition obtainable through secondary causes, or at least there is no clear evidence of such a possibility. Consequently the argument discussed there does not apply to an elevation to absolute immortality, although it would still apply to the fall from that state (namely, it would argue that this is contrary to the usual order of the world.)

However, being elevated to immortality also includes aspects that in fact can be produced by secondary causes. In principle it is not impossible for an animal to be free of biological aging, and there may be some species in nature that are very nearly so. In practice this was not possible for human beings because they descended from a species which already had death by aging. St. Thomas however notes that it is possible to produce freedom from death in this sense through secondary causes:

I answer that, The tree of life in a certain degree was the cause of immortality, but not absolutely. To understand this, we must observe that in the primitive state man possessed, for the preservation of life, two remedies, against two defects. One of these defects was the lost of humidity by the action of natural heat, which acts as the soul’s instrument: as a remedy against such loss man was provided with food, taken from the other trees of paradise, as now we are provided with the food, which we take for the same purpose. The second defect, as the Philosopher says (De Gener. i, 5), arises from the fact that the humor which is caused from extraneous sources, being added to the humor already existing, lessens the specific active power: as water added to wine takes at first the taste of wine, then, as more water is added, the strength of the wine is diminished, till the wine becomes watery. In like manner, we may observe that at first the active force of the species is so strong that it is able to transform so much of the food as is required to replace the lost tissue, as well as what suffices for growth; later on, however, the assimilated food does not suffice for growth, but only replaces what is lost. Last of all, in old age, it does not suffice even for this purpose; whereupon the body declines, and finally dies from natural causes. Against this defect man was provided with a remedy in the tree of life; for its effect was to strengthen the force of the species against the weakness resulting from the admixture of extraneous nutriment. Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiv, 26): “Man had food to appease his hunger, drink to slake his thirst; and the tree of life to banish the breaking up of old age”; and (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19) “The tree of life, like a drug, warded off all bodily corruption.”

Yet it did not absolutely cause immortality; for neither was the soul’s intrinsic power of preserving the body due to the tree of life, nor was it of such efficiency as to give the body a disposition to immortality, whereby it might become indissoluble; which is clear from the fact that every bodily power is finite; so the power of the tree of life could not go so far as to give the body the prerogative of living for an infinite time, but only for a definite time. For it is manifest that the greater a force is, the more durable is its effect; therefore, since the power of the tree of life was finite, man’s life was to be preserved for a definite time by partaking of it once; and when that time had elapsed, man was to be either transferred to a spiritual life, or had need to eat once more of the tree of life.

From this the replies to the objections clearly appear. For the first proves that the tree of life did not absolutely cause immortality; while the others show that it caused incorruption by warding off corruption, according to the explanation above given.

Two problems with this considered as a direct response to the argument from the order of the world, however, are first that the tree of life in Genesis cannot be understood literally, and second that the tree of life itself does not have natural secondary causes. In practice the only realistic way to achieve freedom from death by aging through secondary causes would be through human medical technology, as is hoped for by Ray Kurzweil. But this implies that it is also the mode which is most fitting to the order of the world, which argues that human immortality should be in the future, not in the past.

Nor would the fact that absolute immortality cannot be produced by secondary causes negate this evidence, for absolute immortality could also be in the future, even given that it is to be obtained. And if there could have been rational animals without the capacity for moral choice who lived and died before man was offered immortality, then the proposal that absolute immortality be put off long enough to allow the obtaining of imperfect immortality through the action of secondary causes would be entirely reasonable.

In addition, positing a complete immortality at the beginning of the human race implies the addition of an indefinite number of miracles to the order of secondary causes, which necessarily makes this order less perfect. St. Thomas, noting that man’s body could be affected by other bodies, says that, “Man’s body in the state of innocence could be preserved from suffering injury from a hard body; partly by the use of his reason, whereby he could avoid what was harmful; and partly also by Divine Providence, so preserving him, that nothing of a harmful nature could come upon him unawares.” But such a use of divine providence effectively implies being miraculously preserved from the possibility of accidental death.

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