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An Occasionalist Picture of the Universe

An Occasionalist Picture of the Universe

Nathan Ruler

Nov 1, 2011

When we watch a movie, we think that we see a continuous movement of an object. For instance, a car seems to be moving for a certain time. In other words, there is just one car which is moving. The reality is completely different. In fact, we are confronting a series of images or frames, separated from each other by thin black strips. When we watch a movie, we receive 24 frames per second. But due to the quick movement of images, we are not be able to distinguish different frames in this discontinuous flow and perceive them continuously, as if there is just a car moving over time rather than many different pictures rapidly succeeding each other. Our inability to perceive the distinct frames in movies raises the question as to whether the universe is perceived in the same incomplete way. Do the objects in the universe have their own independent existence and causal powers or are they constantly sustained and created? There is a story about Moses, peace be upon him. Even though we do not know whether or not it is true, it has a lesson to teach. According to the story, Moses wonders about God and requests Gabriel to arrange a meeting with God for him. Gabriel comes with a message that God will disclose Himself to Moses at midnight, but that Moses must wait for Him with two glasses of water in his hands. Moses prepares his glasses and begins to wait for God. As midnight approaches, Moses briefly falls to sleep. The glasses suddenly fall on the ground and the resulting sound wakes him from his sleep. Then Gabriel comes with the following message of God: "I am always with you and with all beings, if I cease to apply my power just for a moment, everything will crash and the order will disappear as your glasses fall down." There are different views of God's relation to the universe, ranging from atheism to occasionalism (defined below), but can we really justify the belief that God constantly sustains the universe, as the story suggests? The idea that God's creative activity is continuous in the universe is known as "continuous creation." However, there are different versions of this doctrine. St. Augustine believed that the universe is constantly sustained by divine power, but he does not rule out the possibility that each being also has its own power to produce something by the help of divine power. This version of continuous creation resulted in St. Aquinas's view of "concurrentism," which states that a certain event is produced together by divine power and the power of finite beings. Another version of the doctrine of continuous creation is called "occasionalism," which denies the ascription of any causal power to finite beings. According to occasionalism, everything is created only by God at each moment and no finite being has a role in the creation. This doctrine was formulated first by the Ash'arite tradition in Islamic theology, was echoed among the Cartesians, the philosophers who followed Descartes, and famously articulated by Malebranche. This article aims to show that occasionalism is a plausible explanation of the universe.

Malebranche's occasionalism and the Cartesian tradition

Malebranche (d. 1715) is a follower of Descartes. He accepts the basic principles of the Cartesian philosophy and inherits the problems remained from Descartes. What is the exact nature of causality? How is the mind related to the body? These are some of the important questions the Cartesian philosophers tried to answer. Malebranche's occasionalism is a reply to such problems as well as a result of his theological concerns. As far as his theological motivation is concerned, Malebranche concluded that a belief in secondary causality, namely ascribing causal power to beings other than God, leads to paganism. For Malebranche, if we are under the control of a power belonging to a natural being, then we should serve it because of the following principle of St. Augustine: whatever truly acts upon us, it is above us, and inferior things serve the superior things. As a result, he denies any causal efficacy in the created realm. Malebranche calls his doctrine "occasionalism" because God creates events, not arbitrarily but in a regular manner, where certain natural events are "occasions" for God's creation of certain effects. What people ordinarily call "causes or natural powers" are in fact "occasional causes" in the sense that they are depicting the uniformity of God's operation in the world and providing us with an ordered system of created nature. If we use al-Ghazali's example, we can say that the existence of fire near a piece of cotton is the occasional cause for God's burning of that cotton. Because of the emphasis on occasional causes, occasionalists do not rule out scientific activity-on the contrary, they encourage it. In their view, scientists are looking for the secret and hidden occasional causes and try to understand how God operates on earth. God is the only true cause having genuine causal power. According to Malebranche's analysis of true causation, there must be a necessary link between a true cause and its effect. A necessary link holds only between the will of an infinitely perfect being and some effect. This is the reason why only God can be regarded as a true cause. In other words, any event or effect needs an absolute power to become existent. It is impossible for finite beings to cause anything at all. That is to say, the two types of finite beings of the Cartesian metaphysics, namely bodies and minds are causally inefficacious. Malebranche accepts Descartes's characterization of bodies and minds. Bodies are essentially extended substances, minds are thinking substances. Bodies are by definition impotent because the idea of extension does not include the idea of power; there is no power belonging to the essence of bodies. Malebranche believed that observation or sense experience leads us to imagine a causal link between two interacting bodies such as when a billiard ball hits another one. He holds that reason corrects sensation and shows us the truth about the inefficacy of the balls in question by reflecting upon the concept of extension which excludes the concept of power or causal efficacy. Minds also are causally impotent. However, people have free will by which they are responsible for their acts. Malebranche abstains from ascribing causal power to the human will by saying "I do not know if that can be called power." However, he does not offer a detailed account like that of Taftazani regarding the question as how people can be free without having causal powers of their own. Nevertheless, his occasionalism offers a good solution to the mind-body problem which bothered Descartes and many Cartesians. This problem is quite complicated because mind and body are postulated as two completely distinct substances having nothing in common. How then are they interacting, for instance, when we feel pain whenever we cut our hand or when we move a chair should we desire to do that? Malebranche resolves this problem by claiming that every state in mind and body is created by God in accordance with each other. It is God who creates the desire to drink water and again God who moves our arms without any intervention between mind and body and creates the action of drinking water. Simply speaking, the human's role in this picture is choosing to actualize or ignore the intentions they have in their minds. Malebranche comes closer to the Ash'arites in his approach to the matter of absurdities. Contradictions and similar absurdities are not subject to divine power and will. This contention of Malebranche diverts him from Descartes's path because Descartes allows that God could have changed logico-mathematical laws. Malebranche rejects this view and excludes logico-mathematical contradictions from the scope of divine power.

Conclusion

For many people, the idea that the universe is constantly created and controlled only by divine power is difficult to grasp. Many tend to believe in a more naturalistic explanation of the universe, where everything has its own power and role in the whole system. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how we sometimes can be mislead if we remember of our inability to perceive movie frames. The picture of the reality is more complicated than its appearance. There are very good reasons to adopt an occasionalistic explanation of the universe. It is interesting to see that this explanation is advocated by both Muslim and Christian philosophers. We see many parallel lines between Malebanche and the Muslim philosophers on this issue. There are sufficiently strong arguments both from East and West showing that occasionalism is well justified, and has satisfying implications in terms of human responsibility and scientific activity.

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