Another unrecognised philosophical choice

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…”
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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to Another unrecognised philosophical choice

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    You list the 3 options as occasionalism, concurrentism and (mere) conservationism. But then I realize that my view is not included on that list!

    Consider concurrentism, which seems to be the favorite above, and its concurrency between creaturely and divine causation. The issue is about where the ‘creaturely’ part came from? All the same questions arise again!

    Is that creaturely part created when the universe was created, or when the creature was born, or by input from God over the lifetime?
    I first read your support of concurrentism as in favor of front-loaded creaturely formation: a kind of deism in the lifetime.
    But, in fact, I am sure theism supports the last option: that even the creaturely abilities come from frequent inputs from God.
    Note: I say ‘frequent’ and not ‘continuous’, because otherwise this is practically occasionalism again.

    Just to note that there is much more depth to these issues!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Ian

      Of course there’s more depth, which is why the issue kept theologians busy for 1500 years! In the first place I’ve done scant justice to occasionalism, which is a serious position, but my intention was to target the unconsidered modern default of conservationism, which creates many problems and inevitably lurches towards deism, and/or makes God irrelevant altogether (thus raising all the internal weaknesses of materialism being increasingly revealed nowadays).

      To “get” concurrentism one needs to do shift the way one thinks considerably. All things come from God both ultimately and immediately, ’tis true, but the secondary causes are real, and are part of the created order of things. So just as phosphorus exists, it will tend to oxidise in air. But just as bare conservationism says it wouldn’t continue to exist but for God’s ongoing will, so concurrentism says it wouldn’t oxidise unless God willed it and cooperated in the reaction.

      In the case of living things, those created natures include the power of generation. They could include the power to evolve, but that raises major problems, since that ability and its outcomes have to be “preloaded” – see below.

      So “frequent inputs from God” are, as I think you judge, of the very essence of true theism. But the way they work enables them to be “continuous” without being occasionalist, and that’s because (as Aquinas, for examply, lucidly spells out) God acts in accordance with the nature of creaturely action. And so he “cooperates” with law-like causes deterministically (enabling science and daily living to be reliable), with chance as chance (so that statistical patterns occur and so on) and with free actions as free actions (so we have genuine free will).

      The scholastics explained in this way knotty problems like God’s not being responsible for the evil in free actions whilst acting in them (so wicked men plan to kill Jesus, God plans to save the world through his death, and the former do “exactly what God ‘s power and will decided beforehand should happen”).

      Similarly, the believer can pray for his daily bread, for the weather to improve, and all those mundane but personally important matters, not leaning on God for miraculous displays of power, but to work in events as he always does. And yet he expects the weather forecasts to indicate the trends, and the supermarket to stock the bread that the science of agriculture reliably produces, and to thank God for each part of it. The world becomes re-sacralised with God’s activity and purposes, and yet still a world of real causes and effects.

      Where, I think, your “frequent” (as opposed to continuous) involvement hits the road is particularly in the realm of creation, where it seems to me that, once one concludes that God wills okapis, ostriches and the preservation of the very hairs of your head, rather than a “mere biosphere”, something divine beyond normal law, chance and human choice is logically involved.

      That’s where the present crop of TEs tend to bail out: since frontloading couldn’t possibly account for individual species, including mankind, let alone every individual as “planned, wanted and cherished”, then God couldn’t possibly have willed such detail, they say. So “creaturely freedom” to evolve must be a good thing – which takes one back to deism, pure and simple, only without the precision that classical deism had in a clockwork universe.

      That’s why the “fiery furnace” example points to God’s constant concurrence, rather than to occasional nudges: he’s imminent in the world, not an occasional visitor. Make sense?

      • Ian Thompson says:

        There are a lot of ideas and ingredients of ideas here that need to be clarified and arranged in some more systematic way. I agree that this was once done by Aquinas, but it needs to redone in view of recent scientific results. (Note, I do not say ‘in view of recent scientific theories’!).
        I’ve tried to start this, for example in a 1993 paper The Consistency Of Physical Law With Divine Immanence that seems to be relevant still. But this is still the beginning.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    A good paper, Ian (and so nice to see it originates from my birthplace, Guildford!), and well worth our readers pondering seriously. As far as I can see, what you propose is actually firmly within the classical concurrentist position, and seems othodox and consistent with science (as it ought to be given your job!).

    Specifically I liked the relationship to creatio continua, which I suspect will also appeal to GD from his tradition. I also liked the way you sail close to, but avoid, panentheism, which I suspect is an inevitable risk for any orthodox formulation of immanence. If I remember aright, the same was said of Jonathan Edwards’ view of immanence – I’ll have to read him sometime.

    Although the Divine acts differently at successive times, the Divine capacities to act need not change themselves to do so, as all the differences can be attributed to how actualities are different at each successive time. The original Divine Omnipotence, although present in and the first principal cause of every natural change, is thus in an important sense completely Transcendent of the changing nature.

    This is a very good way of putting it. It’s the equivalent of the theological insight that God’s love, or his wrath, are constant though denominated differently according to the subject and the circumstances: so his wrath towards a sinner can become blessing and love after repentance, and yet God himself does not change. This also resonates with the Thomistic concept of the creatures as each displaying (analogically and not in toto) some different facet of his divine goodness, though that is One Perfection: in your scheme that same truth applies to the different kind of events that occur through his activity as well. And it’s consistent with classical divine simplicity, though your wording’s a little ambiguous on that!

    I feel you deal best with lawlike events (which I suppose is most relevant to a physicist), and was weakest on the relationship with human choice (the hardest case, of course) – but perhaps also on God’s governance of outcomes overall, in the realm of chaos/contingency and, given The Hump’s interests, on his sovereignty over creation itself, especially in evolution.

    Scripture seems to say (and the old theologians affirm) that God determines outcomes for good even when humans plan them for evil – I sensed your idea at that point drifting towards conservationism a bit. Even so your section on evil had some really good points to make: eg the wicked person’s ability only to receive lesser goods from God (eg self preservation) – that kind of argument is used in classical theology such as Augustine and Aquinas too.

    What kind have response have you had since you wrote it? I would suspect that the biggest objections would not come from classical theists but from those imbued with modern ideas like naturalism or theistic personalism.

  3. Ian Thompson says:

    It is true that this early paper was written with a more impersonal view of God, as my aim was to establish the rationality of (we would say now) concurrentism.
    Also, my ideas since 1993 have been more person-oriented, so that the Divine is recognized as being able to initial spontaneous actions, not just waiting for us to act. (I guess that this is contrast already a tension within many religious minds!)
    In fact, I have had only a few comments on the article, mostly positive, from people who want to go rather further (as you do).

  4. Avatar photo GD says:


    I agree that we need a systematic treatment of the theology of creation. I think such a project is a daunting task, but nonetheless I suggest that one way to develop such a scheme may be based on the following points (some points are self-evident to Christians, but I include these for completeness). I have been trying to incorporate some of the specifics you mention regarding ‘ways God may act’, although I confess a degree of difficulty because I sense that such an approach may require an intellectual ‘concept of God’, and I do not agree with such a concept (be it Deism or personal/Theism). I will read more (including the article by Ian) as time permits.

    1 – That we believe that God created the heavens and the earth, by the power of His Word.
    2 – That our outlook seeks to deal with Faith and Reason; this commences as an individual matter and each person should arrive at (a) there is harmony between Faith and Reason, or (b) there is conflict. Thus a person must make the effort by seeking knowledge from the Bible, Christian traditions and theology, and also have some knowledge of the major philosophical ideas that have been discussed for many centuries.
    3 – If we come to decision (a), we examine our faith (essential features of the Christian Faith) and what we can obtain through Reason (this is mainly a combination of philosophical understanding, common sense and our theological traditions).
    4 – On matters of Faith, I commence with (a) the attributes of God are revealed, and (b) we are able to rely on Biblical text and Orthodox theology that is grounded in Biblical authority (the Church).
    5 – The attribute of God as the Creator is clearly articulated and may be summarised as creating from nothing and sustaining His Creation to conform to His will. However we are mindful of the limitations of human language when we discuss God.
    6 – Insights into the material realm and Nature are provided by the Physical Sciences and the Bio-geological- sciences.
    7 – The attributes of God may be discussed using terms familiar to the Sciences, in the following manner:

    (a) God is not limited in any manner, and consequently the Creation is subject to God’s will in Time, Space, and also at all levels knowable to Science.
    (b) When we consider the details of the Universe, we may discuss these as The Creation, and not a way God may be able to do, or not do, or freedom for nature to make itself, and all ideas that seek to define God or speak of Him otherwise than the revealed.
    (c) We may consider some matters as transcending human capabilities, but such matters may be discussed by noting the Universe within a time/space frame that we may obtain from Science. This frame is part and parcel of the creation and not a means by which we may identify a specific act of God at a specific time. For brevity, I see this as limiting science to what is, rather then what scientists may speculate and imagine. Those matters that are settled provide details of what is, and not a means for identifying and ‘act of God’. I think it is here that teleology may be considered within a general outlook, without requiring anything more from Science, other than certainty that Science may confer on matters of the Creation.

    8 – We need to acknowledge that point (1) would be the basis for the outlook of a Scientist; if a person does not believe this, I cannot see how such a person would think in any manner regarding God. Sound minded atheists would seek to exercise their reason and intellect, to arrive at an outlook that is noted for its absence of belief. I have stated the difficulty faced by anti-theists who seem to propose a negation of other people’s belief, or perhaps a confused outlook that pits science against other people’s outlook and faith.
    9 – We also need to acknowledge the personal aspects of points (2) to (4), and the complications that occur when people seek the Christian faith but rely on a plethora of theological outlooks that are often based on philosophical considerations and are most often novel ideas that often do not seek a grounding in Scripture and Orthodoxy.

    The subject matter is profound and requires a great deal of intellectual effort. It is worth noting however, that the Gospels and Epistles are written for people who did not have access to the libraries of the world, nor could turn to philosophers and theologians. By this I mean to emphasise the importance of faith and the written Word of God, when we consider these matters.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Any detailed synthesis of the scientific, philosophical, metaphysical and theological aspects of creation (or of anything to do with God) must be provisional and, to some extent, speculative: reason will take one so far (and too often too far!), science is provisional and has in the past fundamentally changed (eg from absolute determinism to indeterminism), and revealed theology reveals only what the Lord considers relevant to our needs, which is in itself a caution not to aim too high.

    So in one sense to inquire further is presumptuous, but as Ian says above, his aim was to show the rationality of an approach (which is to say, how far can the three sources of knowledge bring us to a coherent view), rather than to dictate to God how he must behave. If such exercises provide a practical framework of understanding that accords with those sources, but is held tentatively, then it’s useful. If it became dogma, it would be an encumbrance.

    My own interest is less to pretend to undertand the “how”, but to get the “what” right.
    As I’ve been trying to show in these last few posts, failing to do that can lead to radically different ideas of what God does in the world, from “everything” to “nothing”. That will dramatically effect how one lives, prays, worships, moralises and everything else.

    And that’s why on another thread I raised the question: if ones science is not affected even one jot by ones theology, metaphysics and philosophy, why not? It’s more likely that one is blind to ones own presuppositions than that scientific knowledge is uninfluenced by other sources of knowledge.

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