Posted by: dacalu | 11 October 2012

Causation and Miracles

Having embarked on questions of God and causation, it seems appropriate to tackle the case of miracles.  That word, “miracle,” has been defined in numerous ways, some of which conflict with models of physical causation and some of which do not.  Starting with the notion of an unmoved mover (covered in the last blog), I’d like to explore the particular significance of extraordinary events.

Let us begin with the observed chain of causation, necessary to scientific reasoning.

P(n) >> P(n+1) >> P(n+2) >> …

Physical events have physical causes and physical events.  I will add to that the unmoved mover.  For the sake of this blog, we’ll assume the existence of a first link in the causal chain – something that behaves differently.

{Ω} >> P(0) >> P(1) >> … >> P(n) >> P(n+1) >> …
It strikes me that the problematic definition of miracle for natural science has to do with physical events with no apparent physical causes.  So let us coin

P(x) for an extraordinary (perhaps miraculous) physical event

It could have had a physical cause, but all known avenues of explanation have been exhausted.  This does not include miracles like transubstantiation, for which no empirically observable consequences could be determined.  It does include things like spontaneous healing and resurrection from the dead.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all struggled with how to fit this P(x) into the normal chain of physical causes.  The obvious solution is simply to invoke an independent act of intervention by God.  Indeed, many have reached this conclusion.

{Ω} >> P(0) >> P(1) >> … >> P(n)  [Creation]

.                                        {Ω} >> P(x)  [miracle]

.                                                P(x) + P(n) >> P (n+1) >> …  [future events]

The Christian doctrine of “Special Creation of Souls” makes this appeal.  God specifically creates each soul just in time for it to quicken (enliven) the new body.  God acts individually at many point throughout history.

It should be noted that other positions are possible; some have even been popular.


1) Potentialities

Some theologians were troubled by the necessity for God to act repeatedly in history.  Some objected on Platonic grounds – a temporal God is not a perfect God, so creation must be a single eternal act.  Others objected to any attempt to mess about with physical causation.  Why didn’t God just create things all in one go – perfectly.  They subscribe to a different notion, one that looks something like this.

{Ω} >> P(0) >> P(1) >> … >> P(n)  [Obvious Creation]

{Ω} >> P(x0) >> P(x1) >> … >> P(x)  [Hidden Creation]

.                                                   P(x) + P(n) >> P (n+1) >> …  [future events]

The “miracle” is nothing more than our realization of something that has always been true but may not have been manifest.  The rules have not changed, only our understanding of them.  CS Lewis is reaching for this type of argument when he says,  “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”  God can interfere, but what we think of as miracles may only be new observations.  In the case of new animal and plant species, Augustine claimed that new species do arise, but God created potential forms for them in the original creation.  Those potential forms don’t become actual forms until much later.

This scheme also works particularly well with Deism, wherein God acted to cause the universe, but has not subsequently interfered.


2) Occasionalism

The Muslim theologian al-Ghazzali makes another claim.  He sees physical causation as an illusion.  God, he says, recreates the universe in every instant.

{Ω} >> P(0)

.              {Ω} >> P(1)

.                            {Ω} >> P(n)

.                                            {Ω} >> P(x)

Any relationship to previous instants occurs only because God wills it to be so.  Many Muslims have taken this to mean that physical causation doesn’t occur, and subsequently that science and natural philosophy are futile.  Others, including I think al-Ghazzali, maintain that God graciously makes each new instant line up with previous instants in a way gives the consistent illusion of physical causation.  God, on a rare occasion, breaks that rule.

Notably, it wouldn’t matter if God broke the rule or not, because memory for al-Ghazzali is not actually a recollection of an absolute past.  It is only a trait of our instantaneous mind which was placed there as God recreated it.  So God makes new memories with new minds with new bodies – for every instant.  Science is still possible, though only by God’s willing it to be possible.


3) Vertical and Horizontal causation

A later Muslim scholar, Mullah Sadra presents this in a slightly more palatable fashion.  He argues that God’s will is the force that empowers and enforces physical causation.  Just as a billiard ball moves when struck by another ball, so also it requires gravity and a flat table for it to move in a predictable way.  Mullah Sadra argues that physical causes are like the striking ball (horizontal causes), while God acts as the gravity and pool table (vertical causes).

{Ω} >> P(0) >> P(1) >> … >> P(n) >> P(n+1) >> …

.      AA           AA              AA               AA

.      {Ω}          {Ω}            {Ω}              {Ω}

God enables physical causation, for every single instance of cause and effect.  And, on rare occasions, God steers things in a different direction.

Christian notions ofcontinuous creation (creatio contiua) can operate much like models 2 and 3 or can construe humans and God as collaborators.

4) Co-creation

Process theology and other modern/post-modern movements have imagined God as less than omnipotent, so that God must be in some way constrained by physical causation.  God gets demoted from the medieval ideal of perfect causal power to one among many actors in the universe.

I don’t think it will ever be a strong strand in Christianity, but it does inform a significant minority of Christians.  It may be more compatible with Judaism, which emphasizes the mutuality of human-Divine covenant.  On the other hand, it would likely find no traction in Islam where it blurs the separateness of God and may constitute idolatry.

Personally, I cannot reconcile co-creation with my understanding of God.  Still, it’s an interesting alternative position and one that opens the door for our next topic.  Next time:  humans as uncaused causes.



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