The Two “How’s” – On Multiple Causality

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“So, when a ship has overcome the dangers of the sea, although the result be accomplished by great labor on the part of the sailors, and by the aid of all the art of navigation, and by the zeal and carefulness of the pilot, and by the favoring influence of the breezes, and the careful observation of the signs of the stars, no one in his sound senses would ascribe the safety of the vessel, when, after being tossed by the waves, and wearied by the billows, it has at last reached the harbor in safety, to anything else than to the mercy of God. Not even the sailors or pilot venture to say, I have saved the ship, but they refer all to the mercy of God; not that they feel that they have contributed no skill or labor to save the ship, but because they know that while they contributed the labor, the safety of the vessel was ensured by God.” – Origen, De Pricipiis, 3.1.18

One of the many criticisms laid at the doorstep of theists is that we attribute to God that which seems to be easily accounted for by natural factors. A person suffering from a great illness recovers after consulting a physician and undergoing the physician’s recommended treatments. A husband safely navigates icy roads to come home to his concerned wife. A student, after long hours of study, finally passes the last exam and wins for herself degree and title.

If the patient, man, and woman are theists and devout, they will thank God for the outcome.

This seems like foolishness to those who believe firmly that we live in a world of simple efficient causality. In a mechanistic universe where no room for freedom exists, no room for multiple causality can exist. But the Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or any other religious person, need not hold to a purely mechanistic universe. And, even if we did, the causation of God’s intent would still by no means be ruled out.

Let us put aside the question of mechanistic/non-mechanistic universes and consider a thought experiment with regard to causation.  We will see if we cannot get at what theists mean when they attribute to God some good event.

Imagine a man walking down a mountain path, hurrying to bring medicine to his daughter which he has acquired in a nearby village. The man is suddenly set upon by a mountain lion, and prays to God for help. In what seems a miraculous event, a fall of rocks at that moment crushes the mountain lion, allowing the man to pass by safely and rescue his child’s life. And so begins the story of a young woman who grows up to save her nation from poverty, despair, and invasion.

In a mechanistic appraisal of these events, we might say that the events could not have happened any other way. What appears to us as a shocking and favorable coincidence is, indeed, just one of the many patterns that emerges from the complex interaction of the factors of the universe. Those rocks would have fallen at that moment whether the man’s prayer had happened or not. Perhaps they would have fallen even if the man and mountain lion had not been there. Perhaps the motions or weight or sound of the mountain lion shook them free. Indeed, we could trace the physical causes of those rocks, that lion, and that man back through billions of years of determined causality to the moment of the Big Bang and say that the “why” of that moment was the exact formation of the energy and matter that first expanded in that principal moment.

Yet, we may see the events in another way. The “how” of the rocks falling and killing the mountain lion is also that I, the story teller, have made it happen. I have told the story, not putting the Big Bang first and leading up as a result of its form and matter to the inevitable encounter between man and mountain lion. Instead, the man’s experience, or the daughter’s life of heroism, are the center of the story. The story goes outward from there, and we follow it back to give it context and history. The “how” on this level of the events is my will and act of creating the story. It need not “begin at the beginning” if by “beginning” we mean the first chronological event.

Both “how’s” can exist together, simultaneously, but the mechanistic “how” exists due to the “will and act” how. This leaves out entirely the question of “why.” The why is also my will, but perhaps then it is my will that the young woman should save her country, or that the man should save his daughter, or that the wife of the man might not be widowed. In each case, though, the efficient causes are human efforts, or natural events.  Each person would be right in saying that, though they did their part, the accomplishment of their goal was given by the author of the story.

Benedick and Beatrice spar their way toward each other, but it is the Bard that is to be thanked for their marriage. Frodo may put in the very last of his strength to climb Mount Doom, but it is Tolkien who has ensured that the task is complete.

That we live in a story and not an accident of random events is a matter of perspective. One cannot demand scientific proof that we are in a story any more than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy might. There is no experiment to run to tell us if we are in a narrative prepared with vast cosmic backdrop for our little lives of love, hatred, jealousies, nobilities, defeats and victories. One either considers the many elements and recognizes the master hand of the master storyteller, or one does not.

But it is clear that it is not contradiction or foolishness when, as the much maligned giant of Christian thought, the second and third century theologian, Origen, relates the situation of sailors above. For it is rooted deeply in the mystery of St. Paul’s teaching, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13).

It is in the will of God that Christians identify their salvation in both mundane and spiritual things. This is not merely theologizing, for the idea itself is contained in the scriptures. For St. Paul speaks from the Areopagus speaking of God as the one “In [whom] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).

I bring this last point up because some people who have not read much from the ancient world have an assumption that many of Christianity’s arguments are newly minted to defend an old system. But the argument for mechanism/fate is older than Christianity. The Stoics, as best I understand them, held a fatalistic view of a mechanistic universe. Origen, quoted above, lived at the end of the second century into the third century.

The debate is an ancient one, one that Christianity has been very active in from the beginning. And from the beginning we have maintained a very clear idea of (at least) two “how’s” of causality.

 

 

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Self Existence

One of the major points of contention between atheism and theism in the modern popular debate, is the question of self-existence, or what theology calls Aseity.  Modern atheists will often critique theists who say that the universe needs to have an origin, but God can exist on God’s own.  The Atheists will often respond that theists give no good reason why God should be able to exist on God’s own, but the universe cannot.  This post is an attempt to explain what is meant by self-existence in its theological usage.

In short, self-existence is the property of a thing that exists and does not depend on any other thing for its existence.  It does not, as might be thought, mean that a thing causes itself to exist.  This would be a logical contradiction.  Instead, a being with self-existence has no cause, and simply exists on its own.  Because it has no cause, it must exist, for when we look for a cause of its existence, there can be none, and therefore no contingency involved in its being.  Thus, if a self-existent being exists, it also necessarily exists.

This should be distinguished from all other things that are not self-existent.  A wombat is composite and caused, and thus might not have existed.  It has its being in the composite parts and the universe that it exists in.  Its being is contingent on its creation in the past.  Thus any of these things might have been different, and therefore is neither self-existent nor does it possess necessary existence.

The concept of self-existence is what traditional theism applies to only one thing, God.  This is because God is believed to be simple, meaning that God is not made up of many different parts.  When we say that God has a mind, and power, and will, we are not saying that God has three different things that are all put together.  We are arguing that God, in God’s own being, is wholly and totally simple such that whatever it is that we call “mind” in God is the same thing that we call “being” which is the same thing that we call “power.”  However, they are not exactly like what we would call mind, being, and power[1].  For the way we define these things is dependent on definitions that exist within our universe.  Mind, power, and being all are categories that we understand as functioning within a physical system.  However, when we say that God has mind, power, and will, we are saying that God is something that we do not know, but that is best described with these terms, for we have no others to terms.

Now, when skeptics propose that the universe could be self-existent, we must be very specific about what we mean.  It seems that there could be two specific meanings to saying the universe is self-existent.

1.  The Material Universe

What some skeptics may mean when they say that the Universe is self existent, is that the whole composite universe of matter and energy, laws, fields, and so on, is itself self existent.  If this is the case, then the universe must be necessary.  But modern physics does not say that the universe is necessary, or at least not the universe defined like this.  Instead, there seems to be a general agreement that the universe as we see it might have been very different if one of a number of different factors had been slightly off, and there is no sense that they must have been the way they were.  As well, any system that involves randomness, which they state that the universe has[2], cannot be necessary as it depends on randomness resulting one way and not another.  Thus we see contingency in the universe when it is defined as the whole composite system.

2.  The Framework of the Universe

What some other skeptics might mean when they say that universe is self existent, is that the basic framework of the Universe is necessary and not contingent.   The very ground of the universe, the laws which determine how things exist, and how they interact, are self-existent.  Now this is far better than saying that the material universe is self-existent.  However, there are some major problems here as well.

First, we would have to postulate that there is in fact only one real law of the universe that defines how everything exists.  If there are multiple laws, we must ask what context they exist in together to interact with the universe.  Do they derive from each other?  If so, then the multiplicity of laws can exist within the context of the first law, and thus we really have only one law, even if we can identify many elements to it[3]. Now this doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem, as many physicists appear to be trying to find the one most basic law of the universe, one that unifies Quantum and Newtonian mechanics.

But what does cause a bigger problem is that that one law, or one law with many emanating laws, does not create matter/energy.  The one law determines how matter/energy act and interact, but it does not produce either a context for matter/energy, nor does it produce the matter/energy themselves.  There is no indication that the one law of physics has ever produced a single piece of matter, no indication that it has in fact ever caused anything to happen at all.  It is a descriptor, and the One Law of Physics, if it exists, will simply describe all objects and events in the universe.  For it to have any effect on anything, it must have a universe to work on, it cannot produce it.

Thus we find that even a self existent unified law of the universe, while it could exist, cannot be the origin of the universe…with one possible exception.

If the laws of physics somehow found a way to produce the material universe, we must see that they are outside of the universe.  For they cannot be made of matter or energy, or else they are merely the composite contingent universe we described in section 1.  But if they are neither matter, energy, nor space, nor time (for these are also part of that composite universe), then they are by definition supernatural.  They are outside of the universe in a way that Theists propose that God is.

It is possible that the law behind the universe, the one that determines why things do what they do, is conscious and powerful.  If it were conscious and powerful, it could choose to create matter, and be able to do it.  It could order all things, determine all things, and have the power to create them.  Being conscious, it could choose what laws applied to what objects, and perhaps, sometimes change how the laws apply.  Such a Law would also be a Mind, a mind that stands outside of the universe and determines that it should exist.

But then, this is Theism.


[1] See my previous post on “Beyond Words” to get some idea of what this means.

[2] A dubious assertion.  Instead, it seems that it would be more honest if they said simply “we do not see why these things happen.”

[3] Some may see a connection here between this logic and the logic of begetting and procession in the Trinity.  They would be right to do so.