August 8, 2018

What is 'Acausal Thomism'?

In yesterday's post I discussed a view I called 'acausal Thomism'. I think I got the name from Tom Flint's article on divine providence in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, but I don't have the book with me now and the Google and Amazon previews are being uncooperative. In any event, in the comments on yesterday's post, both Mike Almeida and Brandon Watson suggested that this view was in need of clarification. I employed it in yesterday's argument, and I also said that I lean toward endorsing the view. So here I'll try to clarify exactly what I mean by it in both contexts.

Here are two views that I think can be pretty securely associated with Aquinas:

  1. 'Cause' is not predicated univocally of God and creatures.

  2. There is no middle ground between God's natural knowledge and God's free knowledge.

Acausal Thomists want to leverage these two propositions to generate an account of God's relation to the created world that can see God as exercising providential control without acting contrary to Godself by overriding the natural order God has created. (In modern terminology: without violating God's own laws of nature. Of course, most philosophers and theologians working in this tradition have held that God occasionally performs miracles that override the natural order, but they don't want to see this as the primary or general method of providential control.) The acausal Thomist pursues this aim by adding the following claim:
  1. Because of proposition 1, God can control the outcome of any causal chain (even an indeterministic and/or free one) without doing violence to the natural order.

Let me unpack these three claims a bit.

First, Aquinas holds in general that nothing is univocally predicated of God and creatures. That is, when we talk about God we are always using words in a slightly different, though not unrelated, sense to how we use them when talking about creatures. The word 'wise' in the sentences 'Socrates is wise' and 'God is wise' does not have precisely the same meaning. In the particular case of 'cause', a distinction is drawn between 'secondary causation'—which is ordinary natural causation—and the 'primary causation' exercised by God alone. Acausal Thomism is acausal to the extent that it emphasizes that God's so-called 'primary causation' is radically unlike causation in the billiard ball sense. Thus the acausal Thomist will say, if something interfered with your brain, or manipulated you from the outside, to make you choose a certain way, that would take away your freedom, but God's providential control isn't like that. Rather, God stands totally outside the natural causal order and creates and sustains that order. A comparison is sometimes drawn to the author of a fiction who (unless she writes herself into the fiction as a character) does not in any way participate in the chain of fictional causes and effects. Instead, she stands outside that chain and decides exactly how it will go.

1 and 3 clearly are the key moves here, but I want to say a bit about 2 because it's one of the key points of distinction between Thomism and Molinism. For the Thomist, natural knowledge is God's knowledge of necessary truths and is logically prior to God's willing (choosing). Free knowledge is God's knowledge of contingent truths, and is logically posterior to God's willing (choosing). The Molinist wants to introduce a category of 'middle knowledge', so-called because it stands between these: it is prevolitional but contingent. This is where the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom fall. The Thomist does not carve out this middle ground. Further, Aquinas himself holds that, in order for God's knowledge of other things to be consistent with divine aseity, it must really in some sense be self-knowledge, and so he takes God's free knowledge to be God's knowledge of God's own will. This package of views appears to imply omnidetermination: every contingent truth is true because God wills it. But there are moves one can make to try to avoid this conclusion.

Now with respect to my argument from yesterday, the central point is that the acausal Thomist holds that because God's 'primary causation' is not (literally and univocally) causal, God can control the outcome of events in the created world without doing violence to the created order, and hence without interfering with human freedom. ('Free causation' is here regarded as a type of causation, so that whether an action is free depends on the causal chain leading up to it, which God does not disrupt by determining the outcome.) This is the same move Leibniz is making when he writes:

Since, moreover, God's decree consists solely in the resolution he forms, after having compared all possible worlds, to choose that one which is the best, and bring it into existence together with all that this world contains, by means of the all-powerful word Fiat, it is plain to see that this decree changes nothing in the constitution of things: God leaves them just as they were in the state of mere possibility, that is, changing nothing either in their essence or nature, or even in their accidents, which are represented perfectly already in the idea of this possible world. Thus that which is contingent and free remains no less so under the decrees of God than under his prevision. (Theodicy, §52)

Leibniz has a different apparatus than Aquinas, and unlike Aquinas he is also a determinist about the natural causal order, but the key point here is that when God decrees that something should happen, God can decree that it should happen freely or contingently, just as an author can write "he flipped a fair coin and it came up heads" and the coin flip will be random within the fiction. According to Leibniz, God sees that it is possible that I should freely write this post and selects that possibility from among all the others for actuality. God's decree makes actual what was possible, but doesn't alter the causal structure of the possibility in any way.

Now, with respect to yesterday's argument, it doesn't matter whether we get full scale omnideterminism. What matters is just that freedom is consistent with God's controlling every detail of my choices. Even if God sometimes refrains from exercising this control, if one holds that God's exercise of this control is consistent with freedom then why not likewise hold that determinism within the natural causal order is consistent with freedom? That was the question I was raising in my post yesterday. I don't mean to suggest that there are no answers to that question, and I can sort of see the intuition behind thinking that there is a difference here, but I'm at present not convinced that the acausal Thomist move secures a type of freedom stronger than what is available given natural causal determinism.

In yesterday's post I also mentioned that the view I advocated in "Foundational Grounding" is, I think, a kind of acausal Thomism. In that paper I argue that so-called 'primary causation' should be understood as a type of grounding, rather than as a type of causation, and I develop a particular model for how the created world might be grounded in God's willing. I claim that, depending on one's particular views about the grounding relations involved, it is possible to avoid omnidetermination on this view. The paper lays out some advantages to seeing God as outside the causal order. This doesn't particularly depend on proposition 2 above, but it rests heavily on 1 and aims to get the result 3, so in that sense I would say that the model I propose in "Foundational Grounding" is a kind of acausal Thomist model.

Posted by Kenny at August 8, 2018 8:59 AM
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If God decrees that w should be actual, then (presumably) God does not cause w to be actual or cause w to obtain (assuming w is a state of affairs). I don't offhand see why God couldn't decree that an indeterministic world obtains.

Posted by: Mike at August 8, 2018 12:38 PM

Just a quick follow up. It's in general odd to talk about causation in the absence of causal laws anyway, so we really can't make easy sense of God causing a world (and its laws) to obtain. I guess you might have a view of laws, as Swinburne said about this problem, that bottoms out in powers (divine powers, say).

Posted by: Mike at August 8, 2018 12:43 PM

Yes, this is the point exactly. There are a variety of reasons why God's choice of a world, although it makes it the case that that world is actual, can't be causal—at least not in the ordinary 'billiard ball' sense. Once we see that point, there's no obvious reason why God couldn't just decree that a particular causally indeterministic world is actual, where that decree is understood as including even the outcomes of the indeterministic causal influences.

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at August 8, 2018 12:56 PM

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