Date of Award

Fall 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Jeffrey Brower

Committee Chair

Jeffrey Brower

Committee Member 1

Jan Cover

Committee Member 2

Dan Frank

Committee Member 3

Paul Draper


The medieval conception of monotheistic creation is this: God voluntarily creates the universe from nothing. Endorsed by medieval philosophers, this conception of creation is in tension with their understanding of causation more generally. Each theory of causation available--Aristotelian efficient causation in which an agent acts upon a patient, and Neoplatonic emanation in which beings are produced through a series of emanations--have attractive explanatory features, but neither theory aligns perfectly with divine creation. Since God acts to create, efficient causation seems to include creating; yet, efficient causation is not causation ex nihilo. Since emanation accounts for producing being ex nihilo, it seems to include creating, but emanation is neither voluntary nor non-necessary production. Thus, medieval philosophers face what I call the `problem of creation': they must either (a) deny the apparent contradiction; (b) modify their understanding of creation; or (c) develop an entirely new account of causation that is compatible with creation.

In my dissertation, I examine the causal theories of two prominent philosophers, Avicenna and Aquinas. Both attempt to articulate comprehensive causal theories which include an analysis of God's creation of the universe. Despite their distinct cultural and religious milieus, both men describe creating as an action performed by God. I examine how each navigates commitments to his faith tradition and to both Neoplatonic emanation and Aristotelian efficient causation. On the surface, their theories appear similar: they each attempt to solve the problem of creation by selecting option (a). However, this similarity masks underlying differences: each privileges one causal theory in his creation account, and this has implications for understanding their causal theories.

In chapter one, I clarify the problem of creation by discussing each of these traditions in detail. To both Avicenna and Aquinas, solving the problem by selecting option (b) is undesirable, for each would be loath to jettison the claim that God creates either ex nihilo or voluntarily. Option (c) is equally undesirable given the medieval inclination to retain as much of one's heritage as possible. Each selects option (a), but they do so in distinct ways that are explored in chapters two and three.

In chapter two, I contend that Avicenna assumes the truth of Neoplatonic emanation as a model of causation in creation, but he explains that Neoplatonic emanation is not incompatible with divine creation. Avicenna does not take every characteristic of Neoplatonic emanation to be essential to that model, explaining that God emanates voluntarily and non-necessarily (that is, God's action is subject to no internal or external constraints). He also speaks of creating in terms of Aristotelian efficient causation, although to do so, he must develop (and defend developing) the implications of Aristotle's explication of efficient causation. Efficient causation can be natural--involving an agent activating some potentiality in a patient--or metaphysical--involving an agent producing being ex nihilo. I argue that Avicenna prefers Neoplatonic emanation in understanding divine creation.

In chapter three, I contend that Aquinas assumes the truth of Aristotelian efficient causation as a model of causation, but he explains that Aristotelian efficient causation is not incompatible with the Christian conception of creating. Aquinas, like Avicenna, develops the implications of Aristotelian efficient causation, and Aquinas understands efficient causation to be an action performed by an agent. Aquinas also speaks of creating in terms of emanation, which is both voluntary and non-necessary. Ultimately, Aquinas denies every characteristic of Neoplatonic emanation except that (i) God emanates and (ii) God produces being ex nihilo. I argue that not only does Aquinas prefer Aristotelian efficient causation as the manner of discussing and understanding creating, but Aquinas strips from his conception of emanation its uniquely Neoplatonic connotations and implications.

In the final chapter, I offer an analysis of Avicenna's and Aquinas's discussions of causation in creation. I offer a careful analysis of their theories of causation, including the relation between Aristotelian efficient causation and Neoplatonic emanation. Fundamentally, I make clear that it is overly simplistic to assert that Avicenna or Aquinas have philosophies that are purely Aristotelian or purely Neoplatonic. Both adopt the language of each theory, but they each take pains to clarify what is truly entailed by each theory.

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