Friday, January 18, 2019

Thomism, chance and cooperative providence

Thomists have two stories about how God can act providentially in the world. First, God can work simply miraculously, directly producing an effect that transcends the relevant created causal powers. Second, God can work cooperatively: whenever any finite causal agency is exercised, God intentionally cooperates with it through his primary causation, in such a way that it is up to God which of the causal agents natural effects is produced.

I think there is a difficult problem for cooperative divine agency. Suppose Alice is desperate for food for her children. She finds an indeterministic alien device which has the following property. If she presses the big button on it, the machine has probability 1/2 of producing enough food for a month for her family, and probability 1/2 of giving her a mild shock and turning off for a month.

Alice says a quick but sincerely prayer and presses the button. Then, presumably:

  1. The probability that the machine will produce food is 1/2 conditionally on God not working miraculously.

But now notice:

  1. Necessarily, if God does not work miraculously, the machine will produce food if and only if God intentionally connaturally cooperates with the machine to produce food.

From (1) and (2) we can conclude:

  1. The probability that God will intentionally cooperates with the machine to produce food is 1/2 conditionally on God not working miraculously.

But imagine a different machine, where pressing the button has probability 1/2 of producing enough round pizza for a week and probability 1/2 of producing enough square pizza for a week. If Alice pressed the button on that machine, God, in acting cooperatively, would not have any significant reason to make the output of the machine come out one way or another.

In the round-or-square-pizza machine, we would expect the probability that God would cooperate to produce a particular outcome to be 1/2. But in the food-or-nothing machine, God does have a good reason to make the output of the machine be food: namely, God loves Alice and her family. We would expect the statistics for divine intentional cooperation to be different in the case of the two machines. But they are the same. In other words, it seems that God’s cooperative providence cannot depart from the statistics built into the natures of creatures. Yet that providence is fully under God’s voluntary control according to Thomism. This is puzzling.

If the Thomist says that God’s special providence is always exercised miraculously rather than cooperatively, the problem disappears. Absent special providential reasons, God has reason to follow the natural statistics of the machines. But if we allow that God sometimes exercises his special providence cooperatively, that should skew the statistics, and it cannot do that given the argument from (1) and (2) to (3).

Restricting special providence to miracles is a real option, but it destroys one of the advantages that Thomism has over competing theories.


Heath White said...

I think that God operating "cooperatively" or "miraculously" is two entirely different metaphysical pictures.

What most people mean by "miraculously" is that there is some created network of (say) substances and their causal properties that operates entirely independently of God's action. Then for some reason God intervenes in this network to produce an outcome that ordinarily would not happen (or is less likely to happen; or prevent an outcome that would ordinarily happen; etc.)

What "cooperatively" should mean is that God creates states of affairs with certain desirable properties. E.g. he creates the states of affairs "Alice presses a big red button", "The button causes the machine to make a lot of pizza", "The machine makes a lot of pizza". There is no intervention at all here. And *nothing* would happen, or exist, unless God created something or other.

On the "cooperative" model, "miracles" are just cases where what is created is statistically unusual, or a positive coincidence, or where no mundane causal powers are exercised, or something like that. In any case it is not a question of God intervening.

I think most people's intuitive picture is that God creates ex nihilo the initial time-slice of the world, including some causal laws or powers, and then he just watches things unfold after that, intervening occasionally. The Thomist ought to have an entirely different perspective, where God creates the entire timeline of creation "at once".

Alexander R Pruss said...


Traditionally, Catholic thinkers--many of whom would be Thomists--would classify miracles into two groups:
Type A: things that cannot even in principle be done except directly by God
Type B: things that in principle can be done by a creature.
Obviously, Type A miracles cannot be done cooperatively. A standard example in the tradition of a Type A miracle is a resurrection: only God can reunite body and soul. The distinction was important to Catholic apologetics, because once it is established that a Type A event occurred, there is no question as to what agency (divine, angelic, demonic or human) produced the event. Other plausible examples of Type A events: creation ex nihilo, the Incarnation, and transsubstantiation.

Further, while a Type B miracle could be done cooperatively, it does not follow that every Type B miracle *is* done cooperatively. For instance, when Jesus changed water into wine, the subatomic particles of H2O could in principle have quantum tunneled into the sort of arrangement that they have in wine (two neutrons, protons and electrons could quantum tunnel out of some of the oxygen atoms thereby forming the requisite carbon atoms, etc.), and so the miracle could have been cooperatively, i.e., through the quantum causal powers of the particles making up the H2O. But God could have also just sidestepped these causal powers. There is a genuine ontological difference between a Type B miracle done cooperatively and directly. When done cooperatively, the created causal powers are genuine causes of the outcome; when done directly, the created causal powers are not causes of the outcome.

Ryan Miller said...

Lonergan suggests in ch17 (?) of Insight that what providence governs in this ways is the realm of the per accidens. In ch 5 (?) he argues that the per accidens and the statistical are distinct. To me that seems like a promising route to go.

Wesley C. said...

Regarding indeterminism - do you know of any works defending the metaphysical coherence of indeterministic causality, including lacking a contrastive explanation - especially from an Aristotelian perspective?

Many think that this type of ontological indeterminacy would be a brute fact due to thinking contrastivity is a legitimate and necessary form of explanation that all things should have.

Now free will and QM are two concrete examples that are often used to support indeterministic causality, but are there any theoretical and a priori defenses of indeterminism independent of free will and QM - theoretical in the sense of being purely theoretic considerations independent of analysing the concrete examples often used to defend indeterminism?