Rising to the occasion

Early last year I did a couple of pieces (the most useful here) on a new formulation of the metaphysical position on divine action of occasionalism, called “divine compositionalism”, being developed primarily within the field of science. I liked it.

Last month, in an unrelated post, I suggested that the thing that most alienates us from an occasionalist understanding of the world, the reality and inviolability of inanimate secondary causes within nature, is not so much an entailment of biblical theology, but an unconscious hangover from Aristotelian categories that, for purely historical reasons, were left unchallenged by the scientific revolution of Descartes, Bacon and their successors.

The “autonomy and dignity of secondary causes” has found new expression in the influential theology of Jürgen Moltmann, which I have critiqued on many occasions regarding its application to the doctrine of creation. Its central tenet – that God has to move himself aside to make room for the freedom of an autonomous natural creation – has to be read into Scripture, and is at odds with many aspects of it. It seems to arise from the post-modernist objection to authority of all kinds, and to lead logically to Open Theism. That’s all old news.

A more fundamental objection to occasionalism, as classically presented, is that it seems to threaten the reality not only of causes within nature, but of our own minds and wills. But an interesting, and I think important,  long paper by philosopher and historian of science Bruce Gordon helps to deal with this objection, and comes to a model of occasionalism that he compares to those of George Berkeley and Jonathan Edwards, by following the path of science, and particularly of quantum theory.

I won’t comment much on the article, preferring that you read it yourself, except to deal with a possible theological objection commonly made against occasionalism.

Gordon’s case is that, as modern physics has peeled away the layers of material reality, what is left at the quantum level is, in his estimation, nothing solid at all, but only ephemeral possibilities. He suggests that this point, at which physical reality seems to “run out”, really sounds the death knell for the concept of “autonomous secondary causes”, and that it actually represents the causal locus (if that’s the right word in a situation of quantum non-locality!) for God as the sole cause of physical reality.

What is neat about this is that, given the important role given to mind in many understandings of quantum theory, it includes a genuine “autonomous” role for created minds as true secondary causes within the world. In other words, it is a “soft” occasionalism in which God is not the sole cause within the universe – but the true causes that are not God are the kind of teleological agents we can understand as working analogously to God in purposeful ways.

This gives leeway for the existence of “mind” at all kinds of levels as well as the human: it does not commit us to Descartes’ idea that animals are mere senseless automata pushed around by the divine hand. Perhaps even the lowly “vegetative soul” of plants has some kind of genuine filial relationship to God. The point is that any created entity that would care about reality has it. Neither does it exclude the possibility of spiritual agents acting within nature in some way, under God. The cosmos remains a relational creation of real creatures.

All that disappears are the Aristotelian independent causal powers of non-minds: the nature of water to dissolve salt becomes not some autonomous power delegated to molecules at God’s own expense, or decreed as a distant legislator, but simply the way he faithfully acts to sustain his world’s intelligibility when water and salt come together, for the benefit of the true minds within it.

Now the objection that this kind of occasionalism robs Nature of of its “creaturely dignity” is an emotional one, depending entirely on according the power of mind and will to a mythical being called “Nature”. And that’s something that, whilst theologians may demand it of God, they totally ignore themselves whenever they breathe air, build a house or perform any other manipulation of inanimate things. Few accord non-living things “rights” – even the (nonsensical) granting of personhood to rivers is, reading between the lines, more to do with the preservation of the river’s life-preserving roles, rather than acknowledgement of its own intrinsic dignity.

The more powerful objection against occasionalism, it seems to me, is the vague idea that if, in the end, there is no solid basis to physical reality, then God is making us live in a world of illusion. Hence the feelings resonating around the recent suggestion that the universe is a “simulation” in which we are living.

But theologically speaking, what ought we to expect if we are able to probe material reality deeply enough? Creation is not eternal, either in the past (for it was created) or the future (for it will be transformed). And it is sustained in being each moment by God, in whom alone we “live and move and have our being”, and in some theological formulations is recreated each moment by creatio continua. So why would we ever anticipate that there would not be some point at which physical reality stops, a point beyond which there is only the mind of God from which it comes? Even if that point should be beyond the quantum level, it certainly exists somewhere if the universe is created rather than self-existent. As it is, quantum physics appears to be showing what biblical theology would predict at the limits of reality.

But does that limit make the world any less real? We already know that the classical physics that governs our existence is an “illusion” in the sense that it is entirely different from the quantum realities on which it is built. But it is that very classical reality for which our minds (and presumably also the minds possessed by animals and angels) were created. It is in classical reality that we find other minds, the wisdom of God’s work and even God himself.

That’s no more an illusion than the words on a page, representing the author’s mind, lacking reality in the images and thoughts they bring to the mind of the reader. Ink and paper, computer code and monitor, are true media for a relationship between minds – and everybody knows that as they start reading. Moreover, even if they happen to meet the author, they will still value the book itself as a true thing.

“The earth is firmly established – it will not be moved.” That suggests reality, not illusion. But the question is, whether that reality depends on God’s creating secondary causes that are irrevocable because they are independent of him (which they are not anyway, if he sustains them in being), or whether it depends on God’s eternal faithfulness as he acts to preserve and develop it dynamically through his Word?

I suppose the choice is between saying that matter is a product of mind, or that mind is a product of matter. But the materialist is in trouble, because the more he discovers about matter, the less substantial it is. Mind, however, exists wherever we look.

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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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6 Responses to Rising to the occasion

  1. Jay313 says:

    Thought provoking. For some reason, I’m reminded of this poem by Rumi:

    Little by little, wean yourself.
    This is the gist of what I have to say.
    From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
    move to an infant drinking milk,
    to a child on solid food,
    to a searcher after wisdom,
    to a hunter of more invisible game.

    Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
    You might say, “The world outside is vast and intricate.
    There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
    and orchards in bloom.

    At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
    the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.”

    You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
    in the dark with eyes closed.

    Listen to the answer.

    “There is no ‘other world.’
    I only know what I’ve experienced.
    You must be hallucinating.”

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Interesting to grapple with what material “reality” should be. It occurs to me that since God is far more real than anything else, even “a thought in the mind of God” could be more “real” than some independent created “actuality” – which would be more illusory?

    But quantum theory (as Eddington wrote) has to affect our whole approach to reality. Whatever we experience is not the same as its basic building blocks.

    • Jay313 says:

      Yes, we have quantum theory on the infinitely small end of things, and multiverses on the infinitely large end of things. And what is man? Mere flesh ever drifting between both infinities, unable to find his place. I could go on in a Pascalian fashion, but you’ve already heard my schtick!

      Of course, you and I agree that God is the ground of all reality. If he withdrew his spirit, all life would cease. But since I’m in a poetic mood, I’ll let another speak for me, Walt Whitman:

      I am the poet of reality
      I say the earth is not an echo
      Nor man an apparition;
      But that all things seen are real,
      The witness and albic dawn of things equally real
      I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed of the sea
      And went down to reconnoitre there a long time,
      And bring back a report,
      And I understand that those are positive and dense every one
      And that what they seem to the child they are
      [And that the world is not a joke,
      Nor any part of it a sham].

  3. ‘So why would we ever anticipate that there would not be some point at which physical reality stops, a point beyond which there is only the mind of God from which it comes?’

    For me this question requires further consideration. My first thought was, “Is not the body of Jesus a physical reality?’ (and irrevocable), followed by, “Will there be any continuity between our current physical bodies and our resurrected bodies?” (or will God re-create rather than re-surrect us? – I suspect the former.)
    2 Peter 3.9-13 noted.

    Happy New Year

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter – definitely a subject for further consideration, probably lasting several centuries!

      The crux, as far as the present, physical creation, goes, is what one means by “real”. In the end, “real” is simply what God creates, however it works – it’s just that quantum physics seems (according to Gordon) to provide an ephemeral – or perhaps divinely mental – basis for matter, rather than ever-smaller particles that just sit there being solid.

      Jesus’s earthly body was just like ours, and so presumably the same assemblage of quantum states, with all the mystery that entails for science.

      The risen body of Christ is another matter, because it is the first part of the imperishable new creation, that based on spirit, not matter (pneumatikos, rather than psuchikos). There was continuity (the wounds, the recognition, etc), but clearly a fundamental discontinuity too.

      To speculate, maybe that’s the time when the material world that acts as a kind of interface between us and God becomes of the same spirit, and that’s how we see him face to face.

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