Metaphysics, creatio continua, etc, again

I’ve just come across an interesting new version of the metaphysical position on divine action called occasionalism, that has been termed “Divine Compositionalism” by its proposers, philosopher Walter J Schultz and biologist Lisanne Winslow, both of Northeastern University. It seems to me to have a number of strengths. For background, check out my 2014 piece on the three main metaphysical contenders in Christianity for understanding divine action. In the end, exactly how God acts is beyond our ken, but how we conceive things makes a great deal of difference to how we understand the world.

For example, a fourth metaphysical position, “deism”, though popular and even intellectually dominant two centuries ago, is now recognized to be incompatible with both science and Christianity because it entails physical determinism, contra quantum theory, and excludes miracles a priori, contra the witness of Scripture and history. Its popular modern descendant, “semi-deism”, concedes the possibility of miracles only by allowing God to break his own supposedly inviolable laws, thereby making it  self-contradictory. “Mere Conservationism”, the position (often unconsciously) held by many believing scientists, tends to retain an unconsidered view of nature as an independent entity, more or less forcing a division into “natural” and “supernatural” causes which, as I’ve explored recently, actually cannot be adequately defined anyway. More on that below.

Wondering how to present Divine Compositionalism, which is now quite a developed view after ten years of work, it seems to me the best initial approach might be to point you to some original sources, and spend my own effort here on critiquing the commonest objections to occasionalism. So I would commend to your bedtime reading an introductory paper, a new article (if you have access to showing how it can lead to a satisfying theology of nature (which is the part that excites me most) and lastly a YouTube lecture which gives the most accessible explanation of the theory in relation to natural science, but unfortunately (in my view) doesn’t do full justice to the need for such a metaphysical position, nor to its potential scope.

Note, in passing, that that the name “compositionalism” is perhaps unfortunate, as it is also applied to a completely unrelated heterodox view in christology that Jesus was composed of a mixture of the divine and human natures.

If you watch the video link, you’ll see that there is a contrary reply to the presentation at the end which, in effect, offers the usual objections against the usual occasionalism (that God is the only true cause in the universe), and in favour of the commonest classical position, concurrentism (that there are real secondary causes, but God works concurrently with them at all times so that it is still his reality).

What interested me most in this was that the speaker’s final case against compositionalism was that a creation that has true causal “secondary powers” is more worthy of God than one in which all power comes from him directly. The trouble is, that such an appeal to what is most fitting for God is always merely subjective. Deists like Leibniz, after all, argued that a universe made like a precison clock with “a perpetual motion” was more praiseworthy that Newton’s conception of one in which God also acts directly. More specifically to current debates, the argument from fittingness is the precise one used for the “open process” theology I’ve objected to so much in theistic evolution, which stresses the “freedom” of creation over against a puppet-master God who “calls all the shots”.

The trouble for a concurrentist using that argument against occasionalism is that, if creaturely autonomy is so clearly better than causal dependence on God, concurrentism must be only a half-way house to the full autonomy of nature offered by Mere Conservationism + Open Process, so why stop at concurrentism?

So today I want to take a serious look at the strongest objection to occasionalism: that by making God the only real cause in the world it renders secondary causes illusory, reality ephemeral and, worse, God to be a deceiver by fooling us that the world around really does matter. Along the way it appears to demolish free will too (by demolishing us as real causal agents). On reflection I’m not sure such arguments can be made to appeal to anything much more substantial than a fuzzy warm feeling about “liberty and democracy”.

Note how much of that objection depends on affirming “reality”, meaning largely “material reality”. But as a recent article by the astrophysicist Adam Frank demonstrates, nobody can say what “matter” actually is. So it’s a little hard to understand how, in a quantum universe, we should fight so hard for the reality of secondary causes when those causes, and that reality, are so indefinable anyway.

What we can say – and this is relevant to my main point here, about God’s deceiving us if occasionalism were true – is that as an earlier astrophysist, Arthur Eddington, explained so clearly “classical” reality, the reality of everything we experience day-to-day, is demonstrably actually a biological interpretation of the deeply mysterious “quantum” reality discovered by physics to lie behind it. Eddingtom sums this up beautifully in his description of his two tables:

Now, one way of viewing this is that the classical world is a mere illusion, and hence that, theologically, God has deceived us by making us all totally convinced that there are solid things around us (rather than only empty space and energy fields) that these affect each other predictably (rather than probabilistically), and so on. But that would be a foolish conclusion. A far more rational one is that the quantum world is one, deep, layer of the “operating system” of the universe, which generates in turn the classical world as the direct interface with ourselves, who are in turn created to be able to interpret the classical world as we do. That classical world deserves the term “reality”, because it’s the state for which God created us, and in which he interacts with us, and we with each other. As the man said, “Being is communion”. If there is a real possibility for communion between conscious beings (one step beyond Descartes’ more solipsistic “Cogito, ergo sum”), then it seems to me we have reality, whatever the medium or the mechanics involved.

Hence creation can be seen, as far as we are conscious of it, as a communication from God to us in our physical bodies, one stage of which is a quantum reality of which we are only aware by esoteric study. Far from fooling us, God is creating material reality for us from whatever those fundamental entities actually are, as a communication from himself to us.

Another analogy would be the transmission of a TV programme (or a blog post come to that), via various digital media and radio transmissions. It is not that the programme or post is an illusion, the “reality” being the various electronic processes involved. Rather, the latter are the media for the communication of the reality that matters most both to the sender and the recipient. Given where you are and where I am, all the electronics between us form a necessary channel of personal communication.

This, I think, will be useful to keep in mind in considering divine compositionalism, for fundamental to the new article on a theology of nature I linked above is the idea of creation as a divine – and indeed, Trinitarian – communion of love between God and us, rather than an inert, desacralized world that forms, if anything, a barrier between us and God, as the “mechanical philosophy” entails. There was always a danger in the Baconian project of “disenchanting” nature in order to glorify God that investigating the medium separately would lose sight of the message along the way.

There is a lot of potential there for fruitful consideration, not least because it seems to me that something about creation as a communication is much truer to the biblical revelation. It’s also truer to the instinctive way that humans operated before the Aristotelian idea of secondary causes as autonomous entities, and the associated concept of a discrete realm of “nature”, led us to see God as someone who hides behind nature rather than the One who reveals himself through it. Those are diametrically opposed views theologically.

Last December I explored this theme of supposed “divine hiddenness” with respect, in particular, to the prevalence of “animism” in human societies, and rather surprisingly discovered not only that the idea of a personal substrate to “nature” remains common even in modern cultures, but that it has serious contemporary claims to be an intellectual rival to materialism (and maybe compositionalism is one approach along those lines). Ian Thompson, who is a serious thinker on the metaphysics of divine action, and especially on a truly theistic approach to science, commented on that post in relation to the “apparent autonomy” of secondary causes:

I tend to believe that this is deliberate, so we act as if from ourselves and hence enjoy life more. But afterwards we (should) acknowledge that all was from God.

It’s only these strange naturalistic types who systematically mistake appearances for causes!

I’d agree, but wonder if what God really intended was for us to enjoy the “real world” in conscious, albeit incomplete, knowledge that God is acting in it, and even in us. The ancients, after all, had no difficulty in operating upon such principles, whether they perceived the true nature of God or filled the world with spirits and minor deities.

Proverbs 21.1 was written by, or certainly for, King Solomon “in all his glory”: “In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels towards all who please him.” Even in full enjoyment of his own power and freedom, the king found the acknowledgement of God’s government of his deepest being a piece of true wisdom, and not a threat to his real existence as a conscious, willing being, as so many today would.

So, to return to occasionalism, it would appear that some of the objection to it in principle is based on a Newtonian view of material reality, which depends in turn on an Aristotelian assumption of the autonomy of secondary causes. As we have seen, the former can no longer be sustained, for “matter” is not a fundamental concept at all, but in effect a human interpretation of Eddington’s waves, fields and particles. The secondary causes, then, are themselves not a solid reality to be affirmed over against God but, as we saw, a divinely-ordained interpretation of a quantum world in which causation is very different, but it is just as real for all that.

If, then, we have dispensed with the need for material secondary causes to be fundamental, there seems no reason to believe that God would be any more “deceitful” if even the quantum world itself proved to be only an “interpretation” of the direct action of God himself as the only possesor of aseity (independent existence) as occasionalism asserts.

Suppose, therefore, that the whole physical universe were, in some way, “a thought in the mind of God”, or perhaps more christologically, a “word on his lips”, which better reflects both its separateness from, and dependence on, God – and also grounds creation in the Trinity. In one sense that is incontrovertible theologically, for even the minimalist metaphysic of “mere conservationism” affirms that all that exists is only held in being by the mind and will of God. St Paul said, “In Him we live and move and have our being”. Sometime Bishop of Gloucester Charles Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers explains that saying to the Athenian areopagus:

Better, “we live, and are moved, and are”. Each of the verbs used has a definite philosophical significance. The first points to our animal life; the second — from which is derived the Greek word used by ethical writers for passions, such as fear, love, hate, and the like — not, as the English verb suggests, to man’s power of bodily motion in space, but to our emotional nature; the third, to that which constitutes our true essential being, the intellect and will of man. What the words express is not merely the Omnipresence of the Deity; they tell us that the power for every act and sensation and thought comes from Him.

As for material reality, we don’t even know what it is – so if God’s Creation actually consists of that “within himself” he calls “reality”, that’s as real as it need get – for what is more real than God himself? As for how that reality – and specifically, of course, the subjectively autonomous me – can nevertheless be separate from God, and truly have free will, that is indeed likely to prove beyond our pay grade, though that it can is an important theological truth excluding pure panentheism. Compositionalism talks about “object panentheism” as developed by William Vallicella, if you feel up to looking it up! I challenge you, in any case, to distinguish the “real” meaning of “within” or “outside” God, since God is infinite, eternal, omnipresent and immense. We must always be speaking analogically.

My point is that positing God as the sole true cause even of our own actions (let alone those of inanimate nature) is not intrinsically a more difficult or threatening question than the more familiar one of how I can be that same thinking, causal being in a world functioning by the deterministic collisions of molecules – or even in a more sophisticated quantum world in which the molecules are actually influences, not things. To quote the Adam Frank article:

This is what the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, meant when he advised people not to think of atoms as ‘things’.

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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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2 Responses to Metaphysics, creatio continua, etc, again

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    Jon: thanks for remembering my contribution!

    And, if you *can* still enjoy life’s activities while seeing at *the same time* that God is the source of the actions, then you must be (or, have) a soft and obedient ego! Almost angelic, I suppose. Would be wonderful, if we could be like that.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I suspect the devil’s in the detail, and that is largely dictated by ones overall worldview. I’d originally intended to “test” compositionalism to destruction, as it were, by applying it to the limiting case of human freedom to see if it would still work.

      In the event, and especially because the originators of the position studiously avoid applying it beyond “natural science”, at least in the sources cited, I decided instead simply to familiarise readers with the idea by exploring whether it really implies anything more shocking than science has imposed on us anyway, through deterministic laws, the interpretive nature of classical reality, and so on.

      And then beyond that, I wanted to point out that to the ancients (the writer of Proverbs in this case), who lacked a concept of nature and so necessarily attributed all things to divine agency, the angst felt now about “God the Puppetmaster” appears to have had no traction – and Solomon was no angel. That implies to me that we may be imposing a modern category error on the idea of divine involvement, generating problems that don’t exist in (God’s) reality.

      One element, for sure, is judging what “ought” to be the case through a purely emotional variety of “Yuk” factor. The “classic” varieties of divine action (occasionalism and concurrentism) both necessarily include the direct involvement of God in all our actions at some level, and seek to account for how he can be involved with our sins without being the author of evil, and our choices without demolishing our freedom. Both have generated a number of explanations. And both have elicited loud objections from those who feel that they give God too much of a foot in the door.

      But even “mere conservationism” involves God maintaining the acts we do in being moment by moment, which is offensive enough to some people to deny both it and even God’s foreknowledge, lest accountability or freedom be constrained. Many of these folks are so “unangelic” that even the involvement of divine action in non-rational nature is offensive – it’s undignified to creation’s autonomy, as well as demeaning to God, if he is involved in the dissolution of salt.

      On the latter, the compositionalists point out that being moved by God is conceptually little different from being directed by the laws God imposes – except that the former is a personal involvement of communion in his creation, both for its own blessing and for the good of worshipping people.

      So unless we push God entirely out of creation, beyond even deism to the kind of non-interference Thomas Jay Oord favours, somebody is going to feel he is poking his nose too deeply into our affairs. So whose scruples get to decide on the truth of the matter? Ideally, I’d say, we should draw conclusions on deeper grounds than our gut reactions, and see the latter being transformed by truth, whatever it might turn out to be (and I, for one, am still exploring).

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