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An Occasionalist Picture of the Universe
Nov 1, 2011

When we watch a movie, we think that we see a continuous movement of an object. For instance, a car seems to be moving for a certain time. In other words, there is just one car which is moving. The reality is completely different. In fact, we are confronting a series of images or frames, separated from each other by thin black strips. When we watch a movie, we receive 24 frames per second. But due to the quick movement of images, we are not be able to distinguish different frames in this discontinuous flow and perceive them continuously, as if there is just a car moving over time rather than many different pictures rapidly succeeding each other. Our inability to perceive the distinct frames in movies raises the question as to whether the universe is perceived in the same incomplete way. Do the objects in the universe have their own independent existence and causal powers or are they constantly sustained and created? There is a story about Moses, peace be upon him. Even though we do not know whether or not it is true, it has a lesson to teach. According to the story, Moses wonders about God and requests Gabriel to arrange a meeting with God for him. Gabriel comes with a message that God will disclose Himself to Moses at midnight, but that Moses must wait for Him with two glasses of water in his hands. Moses prepares his glasses and begins to wait for God. As midnight approaches, Moses briefly falls to sleep. The glasses suddenly fall on the ground and the resulting sound wakes him from his sleep. Then Gabriel comes with the following message of God: "I am always with you and with all beings, if I cease to apply my power just for a moment, everything will crash and the order will disappear as your glasses fall down." There are different views of God's relation to the universe, ranging from atheism to occasionalism (defined below), but can we really justify the belief that God constantly sustains the universe, as the story suggests? The idea that God's creative activity is continuous in the universe is known as "continuous creation." However, there are different versions of this doctrine. St. Augustine believed that the universe is constantly sustained by divine power, but he does not rule out the possibility that each being also has its own power to produce something by the help of divine power. This version of continuous creation resulted in St. Aquinas's view of "concurrentism," which states that a certain event is produced together by divine power and the power of finite beings. Another version of the doctrine of continuous creation is called "occasionalism," which denies the ascription of any causal power to finite beings. According to occasionalism, everything is created only by God at each moment and no finite being has a role in the creation. This doctrine was formulated first by the Ash'arite tradition in Islamic theology, was echoed among the Cartesians, the philosophers who followed Descartes, and famously articulated by Malebranche. This article aims to show that occasionalism is a plausible explanation of the universe.

Occasionalism in Islamic philosophy and theology

Named after Imam Ash'ari (936 AD), a famous scholar on Islamic theology, the Ash'arite tradition was the first school to embrace occasionalism consistently. In Ash'arite cosmology, the universe can be analyzed in terms of two main categories: those of substance and those of accident. An accident can be simply regarded as a property and a substance is the thing to which properties are attributed. Substances are usually identified with indivisible particles (atom). Atoms are homogeneous, and the diversity in nature appears as a result of the heterogeneity of accidents inhered in these substance-atoms. Accidents are considered to be perishable by their nature. No accident can endure but perishes in the second-instant of its coming to be if God does not recreate it in its substance. This is the crucial point in support of occasionalism. Accidents cannot exist by themselves and the atoms which need accidents to exist cannot exist by themselves either. All atoms and accidents need the power of God in order to exist and subsist over time. In Ash'arite metaphysics, it is not the case that God can create anything. Some things do not fall under the extension of divine power. It is absurd that substances can exist without accidents and there is no rationality in saying that God can create a substance without accident. Logically contradictory cases are also excluded from the scope of divine power. In other words, to say that God can create round squares or logically contradictory cases is a category mistake like saying that number 2 is green. Numbers are not the things to which the color predicates apply. In other words, color-predicates have a certain range or extension of applicability which excludes numbers. On the other hand, the properties of "being odd" or "being even" apply to numbers, but not to material objects. Saying that this chair is even is another category mistake. So each predicate has a certain extension to which this predicate legitimately applies. Things or expressions which are not in the scope (extension) of a certain predicate lead to a category mistake if they are associated with this predicate. So the sentence "God cannot do something" includes a category mistake if that thing in question is a contradiction for instance, because contradictions are not within the scope of divine power. In brief, the general features of the Ash'arite cosmology present a discontinuous universe, which depends on God's creative power to exist and subsist at each moment. Furthermore, it does not consider certain cases such as absurdities to be possible with respect to creation. Al-Kindi supports the Ash'arite picture of the universe by indicating the impossibility of a real causal link between natural objects. He points out that anything which is being affected or being acted upon cannot be a true agent. The true agent acts upon what is affected without itself being affected by any kind of effect. Everything in this universe is acted upon and affected by something else. So God is the only true agent. The rest are only metaphorically causes which do not have real causal powers. Later, al-Ghazali focused on the apparent causal relations between events and argues that the causal relation between any two events can be justified neither logically nor by experience. Let's consider his following example where fire and a piece of cotton are found together and the cotton is burned. A piece of cotton and fire cannot have a logically necessary relation between themselves because we can think of one event without the other, which does not lead to any contradiction. Observation cannot justify that burning of the cotton is a necessarily causal effect of fire because we can observe only that fire and the burning of cotton appeared together, but not that fire caused the burning. This occasionalist metaphysics does not deny that human beings are free in their choices and will be responsible for what they do. The Ash'arites suggest the following formula with respect to human acts: human beings acquire their acts, while God creates these acts. Al-Maturidi later clarifies the nature of the acquisition of their act by human beings by considering human choice as the ground for this acquisition. The thesis that God is the only causal agent in the universe provoked discussion as to whether or not human choice is created by human beings. If human choice is created by human beings, then occasionalism is rejected because, in that case, humans will have causal power together with God. If God creates human choices, then human beings cannot be held responsible for their choices simply because they are not their choices. Sadr-us Sharia and later Taftazani offer an ingenious solution to this problem by denying that human choice falls under the scope of divine power. In their view, human choice is a relational and relative matter that appears between the inclination and the action. For instance, assume that I have a desire to drink water. I choose to drink it and then take a glass of water and perform the action. My choice is a relational matter between my desire to drink water and the act of drinking it. Relations are not things that have definite existence. Think of rightness and leftness. My pen is on the right side of my tea cup from a certain perspective and is on the left side from another perspective. Even though my pen and my tea cup have definite existence, the relations of rightness and leftness which appear between them do not have. These relations are relative matters and because of that they are not genuine objects to which divine power is applicable. In other words, human choice as a relational matter is not under the scope of divine power as round squares are not. As a result, it would be a category mistake to say that God could or could not create human choices. Let's see how occasionalism is articulated in the West.

Malebranche's occasionalism and the Cartesian tradition

Malebranche (d. 1715) is a follower of Descartes. He accepts the basic principles of the Cartesian philosophy and inherits the problems remained from Descartes. What is the exact nature of causality? How is the mind related to the body? These are some of the important questions the Cartesian philosophers tried to answer. Malebranche's occasionalism is a reply to such problems as well as a result of his theological concerns. As far as his theological motivation is concerned, Malebranche concluded that a belief in secondary causality, namely ascribing causal power to beings other than God, leads to paganism. For Malebranche, if we are under the control of a power belonging to a natural being, then we should serve it because of the following principle of St. Augustine: whatever truly acts upon us, it is above us, and inferior things serve the superior things. As a result, he denies any causal efficacy in the created realm. Malebranche calls his doctrine "occasionalism" because God creates events, not arbitrarily but in a regular manner, where certain natural events are "occasions" for God's creation of certain effects. What people ordinarily call "causes or natural powers" are in fact "occasional causes" in the sense that they are depicting the uniformity of God's operation in the world and providing us with an ordered system of created nature. If we use al-Ghazali's example, we can say that the existence of fire near a piece of cotton is the occasional cause for God's burning of that cotton. Because of the emphasis on occasional causes, occasionalists do not rule out scientific activity-on the contrary, they encourage it. In their view, scientists are looking for the secret and hidden occasional causes and try to understand how God operates on earth. God is the only true cause having genuine causal power. According to Malebranche's analysis of true causation, there must be a necessary link between a true cause and its effect. A necessary link holds only between the will of an infinitely perfect being and some effect. This is the reason why only God can be regarded as a true cause. In other words, any event or effect needs an absolute power to become existent. It is impossible for finite beings to cause anything at all. That is to say, the two types of finite beings of the Cartesian metaphysics, namely bodies and minds are causally inefficacious. Malebranche accepts Descartes's characterization of bodies and minds. Bodies are essentially extended substances, minds are thinking substances. Bodies are by definition impotent because the idea of extension does not include the idea of power; there is no power belonging to the essence of bodies. Malebranche believed that observation or sense experience leads us to imagine a causal link between two interacting bodies such as when a billiard ball hits another one. He holds that reason corrects sensation and shows us the truth about the inefficacy of the balls in question by reflecting upon the concept of extension which excludes the concept of power or causal efficacy. Minds also are causally impotent. However, people have free will by which they are responsible for their acts. Malebranche abstains from ascribing causal power to the human will by saying "I do not know if that can be called power." However, he does not offer a detailed account like that of Taftazani regarding the question as how people can be free without having causal powers of their own. Nevertheless, his occasionalism offers a good solution to the mind-body problem which bothered Descartes and many Cartesians. This problem is quite complicated because mind and body are postulated as two completely distinct substances having nothing in common. How then are they interacting, for instance, when we feel pain whenever we cut our hand or when we move a chair should we desire to do that? Malebranche resolves this problem by claiming that every state in mind and body is created by God in accordance with each other. It is God who creates the desire to drink water and again God who moves our arms without any intervention between mind and body and creates the action of drinking water. Simply speaking, the human's role in this picture is choosing to actualize or ignore the intentions they have in their minds. Malebranche comes closer to the Ash'arites in his approach to the matter of absurdities. Contradictions and similar absurdities are not subject to divine power and will. This contention of Malebranche diverts him from Descartes's path because Descartes allows that God could have changed logico-mathematical laws. Malebranche rejects this view and excludes logico-mathematical contradictions from the scope of divine power.


For many people, the idea that the universe is constantly created and controlled only by divine power is difficult to grasp. Many tend to believe in a more naturalistic explanation of the universe, where everything has its own power and role in the whole system. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how we sometimes can be mislead if we remember of our inability to perceive movie frames. The picture of the reality is more complicated than its appearance. There are very good reasons to adopt an occasionalistic explanation of the universe. It is interesting to see that this explanation is advocated by both Muslim and Christian philosophers. We see many parallel lines between Malebanche and the Muslim philosophers on this issue. There are sufficiently strong arguments both from East and West showing that occasionalism is well justified, and has satisfying implications in terms of human responsibility and scientific activity.