Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Two theories of divine conservation

Here are two theories of divine conservation, tendentiously labeled:

  • Occasionalist conservation: That a creature that previously existed continues to exist is solely explained by God’s power.

  • Concurrentist conservation: That a creature that previously existed continues to exist is explained by God’s power concurring with creaturely causal powers (typically, the creature’s power to continue to exist).

It is usual in classical theism to say that divine conservation is very similar to divine creation. This comparison might seen to favor occasionalist conservation. However, that is not so clear once we realize that classical theism holds that all finite things are created by God, and hence creation itself comes in two varieties:

  • Creation ex nihilo: God creates something by the sole exercise of his power.

  • Concurrentist creation: God creates things by concurring with a creaturely cause.

Most of the objects familiar to us are the product of concurrentist creation. Thus, an acorn is produced by God in concurrence with an oak tree, and a car inconcurrence with a factory. (The human soul is an exception according to Catholic tradition.)

Because of this, even if we opt for concurrentist conservation, we can still save the comparison between conservation and creation, as long as we remember that often creation is concurrentist creation.

Which of the two theories of conservation should we prefer?

On general principles, I think we have some reason to prefer concurrentist conservation, simply because it preserves the explanatory connections within the natural world better.

However, if we insist on presentism, then we may be stuck with occasionalist conservation, because presentism makes cross-time causal relations problematic.

[Edited Nov. 4 2020 to replace "cooperation" with the more usual term "concurrence".]

29 comments:

Austin McCoy said...

Dr. Pruss,

I am not quite clear on just what cooperative conservation might mean. There may be a significant disanalogy between other forms of cooperation between God and creaturely natures. It seems to me that powers of natures (like the power of an oak tree to produce an acorn) are grounded in a nature's already existing. The notion of a power of a nature to continue to exist sounds like self-causing to me. Where is the power to continue to exist seated? If in a nature, then you get self-causation. If not in a nature, then there's no cooperation. But I might be missing the point.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

If a creature has a power to continue to exist, that means it has existential inertia.
So, your second theory relies on EI being true.
And, since you reject EI, the only theory left for you is occasionalism.
But, on occasionalism, there is no free will.

Wesley C. said...

@Walter, As before you're confusing existential conservation with occasionalism. And it's understandable as some of the analogies used to explain God's co-operation with created causes is...very imprecise and misleading to say the least (especially the chalk one). The key is to keep in mind that God and created causes operate on different levels of causation, in such a way that God's primary causation doesn't determine created secondary causation insofar as it's secondary. Francisco Suarez says this explicitly in his writings, for example, and admits that (to paraphrase iirc) God's existential conservation accounts for a things existence, but doesn't at the same time cause the secondary determinations of things, which are in the realm of inter-creaturely causation.

Wesley C. said...

@Alex Pruss, I think the idea of a power to continue to exist is where much of the disagreement would lie. As it seems that it's incorrect to describe this as a power that things have, but rather a possibility of their existence stretching out more, so to speak. This would be directly related to God since He is the only one who can make a thing continue to exist, especially if existence is always ex nihilo at any moment. The very intrinsic ex-nihileity of a creature's being would, in that case, imply a cause, as there is no categorical difference between the first moment of existence and the later moments, since the effect of the first moment just is "existing, going from non-being to being"

Existence is unlike, say, quantities, and some qualities, insofar as it doesn't come in degrees, but simply is or is not, which is why if there is conservation of existence, then taking away that conservation would instantaeously take away the being, without a short period of time where, say, existence somehow fades away.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Wesley

No, I don't confuse existential conservation with occasionalism.
I al merely pointing out that, in order form a creature to do it cause anything, it must have autonomous existence,hence there has to be some sort of EI.



Alexander R Pruss said...

Austin:

Why is it easier for an oak tree to cause the future existence of another oak tree than for it to cause its own future existence?

On reflection, here again presentism vs. eternalism is relevant. On eternalism, when an oak tree causes its own future existence, it doesn't actually cause its existence simpliciter. It is already the case that the oak tree exists simpliciter. All that happens is that the oak tree causes itself to have another temporal location. On presentism, though, it does look like once the future comes, the oak tree will have been caused to exist simpliciter by itself. So much the worse for presentism, I say.

Walter:

EI is a general metaphysical thesis on which things continue to exist because they existed before. However, first, EI does not say that things *cause* their future existence--as far as I remember, according to Schmid's EI there is a sui generis metaphysical explanatory relation between present and future existence. It is hard to see how God would cooperate with this general metaphysical principle--principles don't seem the sort of thing one can cooperate with.

Second, EI is a general thesis about all things. I just think that as a matter of contingent fact, at least typically objects in the world have a power to cause their future existence.

Wesley:

On four-dimensional views, to say that I cause myself to exist tomorrow is just to say that I cause myself to occupy the spatiotemporal region of tomorrow. I can cause myself to be in Austin by driving to Austin, and I can cause myself to "be in tomorrow" by using my powers of self-preservation.

Wesley C. said...

@Alex Pruss, The four-dimensional position seems to actually imply that there is no categorical difference between the first moment of existence and the later moments - they're both part of the full existence of a thing - the statement that a thing exists covers within itself the entire temporal extension without division. Which means that just as the first moment requires a cause, so too do the later moments because they aren't sufficiently distinct, but united in the temporal extension of a thing. Temporal extension would just be the existence of a thing as such for finite beings, especially if we consider future moments to be accidents in some way. So B-theory strengthens the argument.

And even if this isn't the case, there's still the problem of primary causality for existence - a thing being able to cause itself to occupy a different region of time simply cannot imply that it causes its existence in a primary causal way, especially if existence is always ex nihilo. We can speak of a thing causing itself to exist with regards to secondary aspects of existence, but to say a thing can cause itself to exist per se because it can cause itself to occupy a temporal location, is still problematic self-causation.

Wesley C. said...

@Walter, So you're assuming that existential causation also implies causation for everything else. But this needs to be proven, as nothing about needing to be sustained in one's basic existence implies one can't cause anything in the secondary realm.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Wesley:

How a thing is in its earlier times causally shapes how it is in the later times. So it makes sense to suppose that the thing's earliest stage comes first causally. I expect that it is true that a 4D thing could be caused to exist in all its 4D extent, with all the properties it ever has, all at once, without any internal causal structuring. But that's not how things in nature are. Some aspects of the thing's existence come along with its initial causation and other aspects flow from these. Thus, my initial genetic structure comes from my initial causation, but my later genetic structure is caused by my earlier genetic structure combined with external influences such as radiation.

I agree that a thing doesn't engage in primary causation to cause itself to be in the future, just as it doesn't engage in primary causation to cause itself to be yellow or fat or thin.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Wesley

Free will means that I have a certain autonomy, which is impossible if everything about me is sustained by something external to me.
Any thought I might have about doing something is created and sustained by God.



utonomy

Wesley C. said...

@Alex Pruss, I agree that the past shapes the future, and that a 4D thing isn't caused to exist all at once by nature, except in God's mode of knowing which is all at once for Him as He sees all the parts at once.

I think what I was trying to say is that if 4D means that the temporal slices of a thing are like accidents, or a part of the thing as a whole, and if we view existence as being indivisible and singular so that temporal moments aren't quantitative divisions of it, then it's likely that every moment is ontologically dependent and caused just like the first moment is, because creating the first moment of existence simply means that a thing truly exists, and a thing's later moments are the same type of existence, so existence at all moments is dependent.

Primary causation is also really important as a distinction here - the existence of a thing necessarily has an element of primary causation in it, since absolute existence as such is ex nihilo and the fundamental. This would mean that the continued existence of a thing also has this primary aspect to it, and this primary aspect can only be caused by primary causation by definition. So even if we accept a 4D view of things, each individual slice and extension would need primary causation since its existence is a primary thing.

Wesley C. said...

@Walter, I think the confusion is with regards to God creating. God in sustaining doesn't determine our thoughts as if He decided to miraculously make us have it by creating it out of nothing suddenly - He sustains the secondary realm of being which includes our thoughts, and this secondary realm functions according to rules of secondary causality. This means that created things do indeed exercise their own causal powers by themselves, without God miraculously actualising it for them. This secondary causal activity is proper to created beings by their nature, so God's sustaining can't contradict their nature since this nature is what He is sustaining.

Unknown said...

You are indeed getting existential conservation confused with occasionalism.

In order for a creature to cause anything, it must have *existence*, not autonomous existence. Why must existence be "autonomous" for a thing to act? People, animals, etc. don't have autonomous existence - we are maintained in being at every moment by our metabolism, the oxygen, etc., all natural conditions which allow us to exist at every moment (and supernatural too, if there are supernatural conditions).

X doesn't have to have "autonomous" existence to be a cause. That strikes me as very awkward. It is sufficient for X to exist.

Moreover, there are three distinct views on divine conservation. Concurrentism, mere conservationism, and occasionalism. While occasionalism is incompatible with free will, it's not clear the same holds for concurrentism and mere conservationism. Certainly not for mere conservationism I would say - the idea is precisely that God merely maintains the being and its powers in existence, but the thing can then (insofar as it exists) cause effects by its own power.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Unknown

In order for a creature to be the real really cause of something, it must have a certain autonomy.
If I build a robot and program it to do something, the robot is not the real cause of the act, but I am. The robot would be a real cause of the act if it had some power to decide for itself.

Wesley

I understand what you mean but this secondary causal activity is only possible if creatures have a certain autonomous existence.
I realize you and Alex believe that God can create beings with some kind of inherent power to persist, but you don't want to call this existential inertia and that's fine.
What i am arguing against is the view of, among others, Edward Feser who maintains that nothing would persist for even an instant without God actively creating and sustaining it.
If that is true, there cannot be ant sort of concurrentism.


Wesley C. said...

@Unknown, Isn't the distinction between mere conservation and concurrentism only that the thing's own exercise of its causal powers is itself sustained in existence under concurrentism, while mere conservation somehow thinks that the existence of this doesn't need sustaining?

@Walter:

"but this secondary causal activity is only possible if creatures have a certain autonomous existence."

But this is something you'd need to argue for, not just assume. Your robot example is really bad, as the robot clearly has its own causal powers which it exercises, and which are distinct from your own causation. The robot actually causes the act directly by its own power, while you're the cause only indirectly. Then there's the fact the robot isn't actually a substance, so doesn't have a substantial form or its own nature strictly speaking; unlike things that are themselves true substances with their own nature - even if they brought about their effects deterministically, they do so through the exercise of their own natural powers, which is very unlike the external preprogramming of a robot.

And since God is infinitely powerful, He can easily create beings who aren't determined but have free will, or are indeterministic - nothing about having their basic existence sustained undermines their nature. Heck, their free nature just IS what's being sustained in the first place.

And no, I at least don't believe that God can create beings with some kind of inherent power to persist - if by persist you mean being a passive or even active power to continue existing on its own.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Wesley

If you don't think God can create beings with An inherent power to persist, then whatever power those beings have is external, and you end up with occasionalism, because in that case, my decision to do X cannot persist either.
Now this is my finale reply to you on this matter.
You van have thé last word if you please.




Alexander R Pruss said...

Wesley: If the temporal slices are like accidents, then we would expect them to be sustained by the substance, because accidents are sustained by the substance (no doubt with the concurrence of primary causation).

Wesley C. said...

@Alex, In that case the substance would be what needs sustaining via primary causation. As no substance can have the power to make itself exist per se, or in the primary sense. Also, does B-theory require us to view the time slices as accidents, or are there other options available?

@Walter, Thanks for the final word, I guess. The way I see it is you're still assuming somehow that if something is sustained then every secondary determination must be imposed on it, or that its causal powers must be actualised directly by God as well. This is just a non-sequitor, as we can clearly conceptualise sustaining without this imposition - we can conceive of God's sustaining differently from the way we may sustain images and scenarios in our imagination, or the way a violinist plays the violin.

The meaning of external is also vague here - a thing's powers can be said to be external insofar as they are the result of God giving them to the thing, as the thing can't give it itself. But it's not external in the sense that every secondary aspect of it is also determined by God, or that it's powers are somehow not internal to it, which they clearly are and are assumed to be internal to things under both mere conservation and concurrentism.

Wesley C. said...

@Alex, Clarification - no substance has the power to make itself continue to exist. In this case, the temporal locations or slices would be accidents of the substance, and so the difference between the first moment of existence and later moments would be very small in such a way that the whole existence of the substance requires a cause, which includes its accidents, so we can't say the substance has the power to make itself occupy temporal locations as if the first moment of existence and later moments were categorically different things.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Wesley:

On a view I like, the substance exists at t only because it has a location-at-t accident. The substance is a cause of its location-at-t accident, just as it can be the cause of its color and shape accidents. To "sustain" the substance is just to make sure it has location-at-t accidents for a range of values of t. That is no harder for the substance to do than to make sure it has a range of color accidents (say, because it's rainbow colored). Fundamental existence is not temporal, and the substance is not responsible for that, of course, on pain of circularity.

Unknown said...

I'm a presentist, so I don't think things could maintain their existence.

But here's perhaps a suggestion for further reflection, dr. Pruss: what do you think of trying to argue for Occasionalist conservation, and against Concurrentist conservation, on the basis that contingent things do not have sufficient power to create or maintain anything in existence? Not because of self-causation paradoxes or problems with theories of time, but because only God (that which is Necessary, Pure Existence, etc) has the power to give being like that?

I'm not sure how I'd further develop that, but I think Aquinas believed in something like that. That no creature can really "give being", only God has control over existence, and as such that Occasionalist Conservation is required regardless of temporal issues and whatnot. It'd be like asking you to cause lightning bolts out of your fingertips: you can't do it, not just because of some temporal paradoxes (if there were such), but because you just don't have the power to produce lightning like that. Contingent things don't have sufficient control over existence to maintain themselves or anything else.

Just an idea.

Wesley C. said...

@Alex Pruss, In that case the fundamental act of existence would be even more undivided and simple, so it'd be as if we're talking about one single instance of existence rather than something literally stretched out over time. In that case, the existence of a thing over time would just be its fundamental existence full-stop, so we'd go from God sustaining a thing over time, to God simply giving a thing being. It'd be like the first moment of existence, which requires a cause; in other words, a thing doesn't have the power to continue to exist fundamentally speaking, as there is one unifying instance of existence which is caused by God.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The oak tree efficiently causes the acorn (with God's concurrence). But to cause the acorn is surely to cause the acorn *to exist*.

Wesley C. said...

That's where the distinction between primary and secondary causation comes in. The tree causes the acorn not per se or fundamentally by giving it being as such, because being as such is absolutely speaking ex nihilo since it's primary causality. And trees don't cause things ex nihilo. The way they cause acorns to exist is in a secondary manner, by giving matter form, or by making determining it to be a specific thing in particular. But it doesn't given being to the acorn in the absolute sense.

We can speak of created things causing other things to exist - but what we really mean there is not that created things literally give others fundamental being ex nihilo, rather they give secondary determinations to things (substantial form, accidents, etc) and so make a new individual exist, but they don't contribute the very being itself.

Wesley C. said...

That is, created causes don't cause the being itself as being, but other things such as form or whatnot, which make new individuals come about. We can describe this as those causes making the new individuals exist, but the meaning of "exist" here is secondary - it's not making a thing have being as such, but changing the already existing reality to bring about a new reality. So existence is caused in a secondary sense, but not in the ex nihilo absolute sense.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suppose we could have a theory on which the finite cause gives rise to the form and God gives rise to the being. But the form of the new thing *is*. So I don't know how the finite cause can cause the new form without causing it to be.

Wesley C. said...

Even in that case, we wouldn't say the finite creature causes the form to exist ex nihilo. So since the way it causes existence is not directly ex nihilo, so it must do so in another way. When a new substantial form is imparted to a thing, then a new individual exists and the creature is the cause of the individual's existence by giving it the substantial form, but not the being as such, as the being is ex nihilo. One way to describe how a creature causes another to exist is that it causes the being as a particular creature, not the being as being, or it causes the individual as the specific individual it is, but not as existing absolutely.

Wesley C. said...

So while you could say the form also has being, and the creature makes the form to be in one sense, it doesn't cause it by causing the being itself. It's easy to conceive of God directly sustaining the primary being, so the creature is said to be the cause of the form by being the one to impart it and having it be in an individual.

Alexander R Pruss said...

BTW, here is a good summary of the traditional Thomist position: https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/pnt16.htm#n_1