More by chance than intention I’ve been examining some classical philosophical ideas in the last few posts, and how they unconsciously shape science generally, but also in particular Christian approaches to creation. I first looked at Aristotelian categories of causation here, here and here,and showed how modern science’s refusal to acknowledge anything but efficient and material causation hampers its own work (formal causation being necessary to understanding information and form, and final causation being smuggled in by the back door anyway).
But I also showed how we modern Christians, by taking a similarly restricted view of causation, can make a proper understanding of God’s work in creation impossible.
I next discussed the division between philosophical nominalism and realism here and here, and how Darwinian gradualism more or less presupposes nominalism, whereas both day-to-day experience and consideration of God’s dealings with us favour realism: a second area in which we may need to swim against prevailing streams.
I want to deal with a third issue here, and that is the classical alternatives regarding divine action called occasionalism, concurrentism and (mere) conservationism. Once again, they may sound like “angels on the head of a pin” issues, but they are actually vitally important, as we’ll see. V J Torley is a philosophy PhD from Australia – a Catholic ID supporter with a sympathy for Thomism. He wrote a long blog series on Aquinas’ thought in relation to biology , and in that he defines these terms:
How does God act in Nature? Historically, three positions have been put forward in answer to this question: “conservationism,” “concurrentism,” and “occasionalism.” The following definitions are taken from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (article: “Occasionalism”).
We might distinguish the three positions by the degree of causal activity assigned to God and the creature respectively, when a natural event takes place. At one end is conservationism, which keeps divine causal involvement to a minimum. According to conservationism, while God conserves substances with their powers in existence, when creatures are causally active in bringing about their natural effects, God’s contribution is remote or indirect. In other words, God’s causal contribution consists in merely conserving the being or esse of the creature in question along with its power, and the causal activity of the creature is in some straightforward sense the creature’s own and not God’s (Freddoso 1991, 554).
At the other end is occasionalism, where divine causal activity is maximal and creaturely causal activity is non-existent, since divine causal activity is the only type of genuine causality. Creatures provide at most an occasion for God’s activity, which is direct and immediate in bringing about all effects in nature.
Concurrentism (or “divine concurrentism”) can then be seen as occupying the middle ground. Concurrentists hold that when a natural effect is produced, it is immediately caused by both God and the creature.
We can dismiss occasionalism from the discussion here, though it did become dominant in Islamic thinking through al-Ghazali (1058-1111), and is commonly held to have crippled Islam’s scientific progress: occasionalism denies secondary causation altogether, and therefore the possibility of doing science.
At first sight concurrentism seems complicated and contrived – but then so does the Trinity. I’ll discuss it later as I try to establish its truth. Suffice it to say, at this stage, that it was the considered position of most patristic and mediaeval Christian philosophers and theologians. But as the Renaissance came round, it tended to be thrown out with the whole of scholastic philosophy as belonging to the Dark Ages.
“Autonomy” was the new elixir of life, and as early modern science began, conservationism became part of the new simplified world of ideas. God, it was felt, made secondary causes to run on their own by their own inbuilt efficient and material causation – they were autonomous agents. Why he made them (final causation) was therefore irrelevant to science. How he made them (formal causation) likewise. Hence “science is the investigation of secondary causes”, and hence methodological naturalism is simply excluding things that are entirely irrelevant to nature’s operation anyway.
See how logically and inevitably it all follows. The Enlightenment’s attempt to remove God from the picture altogether removed even conservationism’s minimalist idea of God’s sustaining everything in existence (perhaps it sustains itself – cue Hawking?). But in Enlightenment theology too the effects of conservationism were inevitable. The world became divided sharply into the “natural” (autonomous secondary causes) and the “supernatural” (God’s activity, or miracles).
The inevitable result was Deism, which under conservationism was the only viable way to view God’s role. And thus is it that one sees, in Leibniz’s critique of Newton, the beginnings of that familiar form of argumentation, “What kind of incompetent God makes a creation that has to be meddled with afterwards?” Familiar?
It should be. In my frustrating discussion with Darrel Falk on BioLogos a couple of years ago it became clear that he saw God’s role in evolution as that of setting up a reliable, law-like, system which he also sustains in existence. He left it as a (clearly unappetizing) possibility that God might occasionally have done miracles. But for him, miracles would by preference be restricted to the signs for faith in the Bible, and perhaps in individuals’ lives – why would a good God need to interfere with the natural processes he himself has set up?
Knowing nothing of these philosophical categories, I did, however, notice BioLogos’ careful skirting of the Bible’s teaching on God’s providential governance of all things, which was replaced with a mere sustaining of their existence. In retrospect, it is classic “mere conservationism”.
The sequelae of this conservationism, probably unconsciously imbibed from a scientific education in Falk’s case, are greater than this, though. Ungoverned “natural” secondary causes are, de facto, autonomous. If they lead to the whole evolutionary process, as TEs believe they do, they must also be genuinely creative, in loco dei. This gives flesh to Darrel’s claim that “God has given nature limited freedom to create itself.” It is literally true, because nature is literally autonomous of God. So we must conclude that:
Conservationism + Evolution = Demiurge
…a conclusion that the mediaeval conservationists would never have envisaged, but which is an inevitable outcome of the two premises. What is more arguable is whether this would warrant the description “God creates through evolution” – the whole point is that secondary causes are autonomous of God. For me to finance a writer’s guild does not make me the author of their books.
But the logic goes further, too, to encompass the whole heterodox (and incoherent) edifice of modern theistic evolution I have been critiquing these last few years. For in such a system, any action of God in nature must be an overturning of secondary causation – an interference, a contradiction of God’s own work. Not only that, but it is necessarily coercive.
The assertion of creaturely autonomy does nothing to make the analogy of “freedom” for unconscious agents less incoherent, but it does raise a real issue of God’s apparent overturning of his own work, by force. The “puppetmaster God” of Haught, Van Till, Polkinghorne and a host of others also turns out to be an artifact of assuming conservationism (and either rejecting, or more likely, never getting exposed to, concurrentism.)
Philosopher Alfred Freddoso, of Notre Dame, cited in the Stanford Dictionary definitions above, provides one of Torley’s favourite sources and is well worth reading here, though the combination of scholastic ideas and analytic philosophical language makes it heavy going. In describing one classical critique of “mere conservationism” (his preferred term), he casts a light on its approach to God’s actions that has a great bearing on modern theistic evolutionary thinking. For conservationism, remember, does not deny God’s present activity – it just restricts it to the miraculous.
Freddoso (following classical authors) examines this through the biblical miracle of Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace, who were not burned by the fire even though their guards were incinerated. Now it is natural for fire to burn humans to a crisp. So under mere conservation, in which that fiery nature is an autonomous power, God has to override that natural power in some external, coercive way – say by cooling the flames or putting a heat-proof force-field around the victims. He is not actually in charge of the fire itself as God should be, if its Creator and Lord; he acts just by being stronger. He fights against his creation.
So what’s the alternative? As Molina said, making the case centuries ago:
If God did not cooperate with secondary causes, He clearly would not have been able to bring it about that the Babylonian fire did not burn the three young men except by opposing it, as it were, and impeding its action either (i) through some contrary action or (ii) by placing something around the young men or conferring on them some resistant quality which would prevent the fire’s impressing its action upon them. Therefore, since this derogates both the divine power and also the total subjection by which all things submit to and obey that power, one should claim without doubt that God cooperates with secondary causes, and that it was only because God did not concur with the fire in its action that the young men were not incinerated by it. [Concordia, pt. II, disp. 25, § 15]
Concurrentism, then, holds that in every action, God works with (or perhaps within) the secondary causes to make them effective. Notice how the case of the miracle is invoked only to demonstrate the case of the norm: since God always works in fire, he would in the case of a miracle only have to act internally by declining to co-operate with its usual nature, and not by any kind of opposition or interference. Ergo, in the usual situation, his activity is not merely to sustain the fire and its powers, but to govern their effectiveness.
Freddoso describes other arguments too, and his conclusions are significant (drawn from various points in his paper):
Nonetheless… mere conservationism is itself plagued by grave internal tensions that push it forcefully in the direction of a form of deism which, however weak, falls beyond the pale of theistic orthodoxy. What’s more, [these arguments establish], if nothing else, that concurrentism is theologically preferable to mere conservationism as long as it itself can be shown to be free of serious intrinsic deficiencies. In either case, mere conservationism appears not to be an attractive resting place for theistic naturalists.
…In short, it is not entirely surprising that in the history of the theistic debate over God’s causal activity in nature mere conservationism has not been able to attract much of a following.
…I am assuming as before that mere conservationism is the weakest account of divine causation which is even arguably compatible with theistic orthodoxy. Some may wish to contest this assumption. If so, it seems evident that, in light of the religious and intellectual tradition handed down to us on this matter, the burden of proof lies with the dissenters.
What is intriguing here is not only his conclusion in favour of concurrentism, but his doubts over the compatibility of conservationism with theological orthodoxy. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it even more strongly:
In spite of its mass appeal, conservationism was almost never taken seriously by Christian or Islamic theologians and was denounced as heretical for a variety of reasons that need not concern us here, for the much more important historical distinction was between concurrentism and occasionalism.
If concurrentism is true (and Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Reformed traditions all hold that it is), then all evolution is directed theistic evolution, even if it operates entirely by secondary causation. The whole Giordian knot of “undirected, unplanned” causes is cut through at one stroke.
But unfortunately, so is strict methodological naturalism, because there is no longer a principle that renders God accountable to the “laws of nature”, since they are not autonomous but cooperative – indeed, subordinate, for classical formulations of concurrentism say that the first cause of every actual event is God. It is nature that co-operates with its Lord rather than God who co-operates with nature.
In fact, secondary causation becomes harmoniously assimilated within the formal, efficient and final causation of God, and he is recognised as both transcendent and intimately imminent. He is once more not only a distant force, but the involved governor of every detail of his creation. Therefore, the mechanisms of evolution can’t be assumed to involve only natural causes. They must be assessed not only scientifically but theologically and philosophically too. Reality is bigger than science, and that means physical reality too.
Methodological naturalism is still useful as an approximate and relativised tool, but like Newtonian physics requires the recognition of a universal higher-order causation. I’m surprised that this should be problematic to the Christian. Conversely, all talk of nature’s freedom, of God’s “allowing” this or “compelling” that, of “tyranny” and “interference” and “breaking laws” is all so much theological froth, for God and his sovereign activity are all in all – “in him we live, and move, and have our being.” Additionally the idea of self-emptying as a principle of the divine nature (as opposed to what Paul speaks of about the incarnation in Philippians 2) is simply incoherent: under concurrentism if God isn’t actively involved in every action, then there simply is no action. It’s the difference between God being God and God being merely a higher power. It’s the difference between expecting actual providence in our lives and wishful thinking in a mechanistic universe.
But is Freddoso right about the superiority of concurrentism? In asking this, one must remember that one is actually asking if almost the entire Church and its philosophers up to Descartes were mistaken. I think it’s also worth asking if one has ever heard that modern Christians are even aware of, let alone capable of making a judgement over, these two positions. Conservationism, only without that label, is simply assumed – what nature does is what God doesn’t do, so let’s all start running round in theological circles.
This isn’t the place to make a complete case for concurrentism. But let me toss a few biblical assertions into the ring, and you can consider whether mere conservationism is adequate to account for them or whether God’s sovereign concurrence is a necessary assumption (you can test them against occasionalism too, if you’re a glutton for punishment).
- God created living things to reproduce after their kinds, yet forms us in the womb, brings increase to the land and takes and re-creates all life.
- It is a non-deterministic physical universe, yet God makes specific promises about distant future events.
- God raises up the Babylonians to judge Israel, yet holds them accountable for their actions.
- Joseph’s brothers plan evil for him, but God intended it for good. Likewise Jesus’ killers did what God planned.
- God is at work in us both to will and to act according to his good purpose.
- Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
- “He who believes in me has eternal life” “…and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”