The Two “How’s” – On Multiple Causality

Ludolf_Bakhuizen_-_Ships_Running_Aground_in_a_Storm_-_WGA01131

“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.

 

 

Advertisements

Can God Make a Rock?

We are often presented with “unanswerable” questions by those who find the idea of God to be either ridiculous or self-contradictory. One aspect or another of the divine fullness is attacked by those who question every minute of every hour. Many of us, who believe that God is the God of traditional Christian expression, have had the question put to us “Can God Make a Rock that God can’t lift?” This post is a short exercise in answering this very question from a number of different theological perspectives. The first approaches the logic of the proposed situation, the second approaches the logic of the question itself, and the third approaches it from a specifically Christian perspective.

1. The Logic of the Proposed Situation

The question is aimed at attacking the omnipotence of God, or even the concept of omnipotence itself. The general idea is that because there are conflicting and mutually exclusive potential realities that an omnipotent God cannot exist, because both alternatives cannot logically be accomplished. Thus, the question asks whether it is possible for God to create a rock that omnipotence cannot lift. If the creation of the rock cannot be done, then God is not omnipotent. If the rock cannot be lifted, the same outcome results.

The question assumes a model of omnipotence that no theologian that I am aware of holds or has ever held in the Christian faith (though I did once meet a pastor who thought this way). The most famous statement on this is from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states “whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” (Summa Theolog. I Q25, 3). Thus, whenever Christians say that God is all powerful, we mean specifically that all intrinsically possible things are within God’s power. Thus, God cannot make a square a circle and also leave it a square. It is possible for a square to become a circle, but it is not possible for it to also remain a square during or after the change.

Now that fact has major ramifications for many questions of Christian theology. For those who hold merely to forensic justification or imputed righteousness, one must ask how a person can be saved, i.e. have the life of God, and be in the very likeness of God, while remaining what they were beforehand. These models seem to propose that God can make a circle into a square and leave it still a circle after the fact. Such a thing is impossible, even for a God for whom all things are impossible.

Thus the question of the rock and God’s power, proposes a logically contradictory situation. God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, not because it is a possibility that there can be rocks that omnipotence cannot lift, but because it is a sheer impossibility. A rock, being a rock, must have weight, even if it is by some miracle of physics, infinite weight. Omnipotence can easily create enough force to move the rock. The logical contradiction is if Omnipotence could not move the rock, for then it would not be omnipotence. Thus we are left with a situation in which God can create a rock of any size, but the fact that it could not be lifted by omnipotence is itself a logical contradiction, and as we have seen, nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God…or any omnipotence for that matter.

Now, if this means that omnipotence is impossible, in the sense that many of our detractors imagine it, then we must agree, and have always agreed. Omnipotence which implies the ability to do logically contradictory things has never been, to my knowledge, put forward as an attribute of God by any reputable theologian in the entire history of the Church. So, we may agree with our detractors in deriding this particular version of omnipotence. Thank goodness we’ve never actually proposed it.

2. The Logic of the Question

The question itself is structured in a way that most people do not notice. It essentially forms a double negative, and thus condemns God, not for a lack of power, but for actually being omnipotent. I found this answer while reading Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations, but the answer is so obvious that I’m embarrassed that I did not see it myself immediately.

On the surface, the question proposes two powers that God may have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size or weight. The second is the power to not lift a rock over a certain size. Immediately the problem comes out at once. The second is not a power at all, not an ability that God can have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size at all. The second, however, is not an addition to power, but a subtraction of it.

To say that God lacks the ability to not be able to move certain sizes of rock is simply a very complicated way of saying God can move any rock. The fact that God can move rocks is a power, the ability to find a rock, or even to create a rock, that God can’t move, is not an addition to God’s power, but a subtraction from it. The trick to the question it that it shrouds the proposed lack of God’s power as if it were an addition to it. This would be like proposing the idea that I am a poor writer because I cannot write a sentence that I cannot read. (One need not resort, incidentally, to such complicated means to argue for the weaknesses in my writing). If I were a great writer, I could write any sentence. But I must not be a very good one, if there are sentences from my own hand that I cannot read. This is, of course, nonsense.

3. The Christian Response

This will not be a “Christian” Response in the manner that it will attempt to be nice. Christians should in fact be nice, as far as that goes, but they should also be as accurate as possible, and as faithful to the truth as possible. This answer is Christian, in the sense that it comes only from a Christian perspective. The first two answers could be given by anyone of any faith with a little logic behind them. This, however, turns on that most peculiar of Christian doctrines, the Incarnation.

For, it is true that God has made many stones that God cannot lift. One might guess that any stone much over a hundred and fifty pounds would be too much for the God of the Universe. For we, as Christians, believe that God emptied Godself in the act of becoming human, and dwelling among us. God, with human hands and feet, could not lift the vast majority of stones in the world. The body of a carpenter or stonecutter is strong, and Jesus of Nazareth could almost certainly bench more than I can. But the range of human strength is quite limited. Human beings are small things when it comes to the vast weight of many stones. And this Jesus, though God of the universe, was also a man.

And thus the answer particularly from Christianity is, yes. God can, and has, made many stones that God cannot lift. And this too is no detraction from His power. For the God of all creation to empty Himself, a process called Kenosis, is a vast and mighty miracle. To bridge the gap from that which is not created, God the Trinity, to that which is, the universe, and that particular bit we call Earth, is a miracle that even dwarfs the creation of the Universe itself. So mighty is God that God can walk with human feet, and hold things with human hands. But then, those hands can only hold so much.

Of course, we remember as well that Christ knew very well about humanity’s rock problems. So he offered us the power to move them, to become like Him, and to be able, through faith to move mountains. (Mt 17:20)

So ultimately, the question is not, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot move it?” The question is “Can God make a rock so big, that those made to share God’s own nature cannot move it?” And the answer, thanks be to God, is no.