It is important to theistic religion that it conceives of God as being active in various ways. God creates the world, and human beings; he is also thought to perform miracles. On the usual picture, everything God does in the world is something that God causes to occur. But God is not normally conceived as being part of the natural world himself. He is supernatural. This means any event in the world that expresses God’s activity is understood to be the effect of a supernatural cause. Let us call this view- the view that God acts by supernaturally causing things to happen in the natural world- supernaturalism.
I have trouble getting a clear grasp on this idea of supernatural causation. I think I have a handle on the notion of a cause generally, though maybe I am fooling myself here. But for example, I think I understand the following claims:
- Sally caused her car to start by turning the key in the ignition.
- Sally caused Betty to get a sunburn by leaving the tanning bed on for too long.
- Sally caused the chandelier to fall by cutting the chain from which it was hanging.
- Sally caused the vinegar to foam up by putting baking soda in it.
But God is usually thought of as being able to cause things to occur without having a body. Furthermore, God is conceived to be all-powerful. So if God exists as theistic religion supposes he does, he could start a car, give Betty a sunburn, make a chandelier fall, or make vinegar foam up. How can he do all these things without a body? Remember, God is not a physical thing, and so he has no physical properties. He has no mass, no charge, no wavelength, no chemical valence.
A supernatural cause has, as far as I can tell, nothing in common with any other sort of cause. Thus it seems to me to be an empty notion. Why call this “causation” when it bears no resemblance at all to any other sort of cause? Suppose I told you that I had a pet bird called an Oolumph. You are interested; what sort of bird is this? You have never heard of such a thing. Does it have wings, feathers? Does it lay eggs? I inform you that it has nothing in common with any other birds with which you are familiar. You would be within your rights to ask me why I call it a bird.
I suppose we could say that supernatural causation is just its own kind of cause. (This would be like suggesting that the Oolumph is just its own kind of bird.) A particularly inviting possibility might be to deny that supernatural causation is a form of event causation. But thinking of God’s activity in causal terms invites confusion. For instance, theistic philosophers suppose that God created human beings- i.e. that he caused them to exist. But then they often suppose that this account of the origin of human beings competes with the account given by evolutionary biology, so that only one of these accounts can be correct. They seem inclined to suppose so because they think the word “cause” is univocal (i.e. means the same thing) in these two sentences:
- Human beings were created (i.e. were caused to exist) by God, and
- Human beings came about (i.e. were caused to exist) by evolutionary forces.
The problem of divine agency that emerges here is a familiar one to philosophers. We encounter it in what is known as the problem of mind-body interaction, which arises in regard to a theory of mind known as substance dualism. It appears as though mind and body interact in various ways; the physical event of hitting my thumb with a hammer, for example, causes a mental event to occur, namely the sensation of pain. The mental event of my willing my arm to go up causes the physical event of my arm’s going up- or so the substance dualist supposes. But the substance dualist denies that the mind is a physical thing. How is this sort of causal interaction possible if the mind is not physical? Supernaturalism seems to be a variety of substance dualism.
All this talk of supernatural causation presents a serious problem for the view that God acts in the world- and by extension for theism generally. What to do?
One solution is to abandon theism. Science tells us everything we need to know about what happens in the world; there is no room for God. Or perhaps there is a God, but God never does anything. Obviously neither of these is a very attractive solution to the theist.
I think there is another solution. I don’t have the space to fully explain it here, but perhaps I can give some general indication of the direction that I think theism ought to take. The mistake that supernaturalism makes is in supposing that God can only act by being the cause of events in the natural world. It’s tempting to suppose this is true of agency generally- that anything an agent does, she does by causing something to occur. This is false.
Some time ago, a philosopher by the name of Arthur Danto noticed that some of the things we do are not things we cause to occur. He referred to these as “basic actions.” This notion received quite a bit of discussion from other philosophers, such as Donald Davidson, Alvin Goldman, and Jennifer Hornsby. Davidson refers to these as “primitive actions,” and says on p. 49 of his book, Essays on Action and Events, that “event causality cannot…be used to explain the relation between an agent and a primitive action.” Suppose that I move my fingers, thereby flipping a switch, which causes a light to go on. We would rightly say that I caused the light to go on, and that I caused the switch to be flipped. But I do not cause my fingers to move. I simply move them. This is a basic action on my part.
This means that we can speak of an agent as performing an action without making any references to causes.
We have seen that serious problems are implied by the view that God supernaturally causes anything to happen. But if God exists, we can say that God acts in the world in a basic sort of way. There are things that God “simply does,” in the same way that I move my fingers. These are not things that God causes to occur. I suggest that theists abandon talk of supernatural causes and speak instead in terms of basic divine action.
As a postscript, I regret to report that Arthur Danto died just a few days ago, on October 25th, 2013, and I would like to provide a link to his obituary in the New York Times. Though he wrote on many topics, he was best known for his work in the philosophy of art. I had the pleasure of conversing with him on a couple of very memorable occasions.
Department of Philosophy