Monday, August 06, 2012

Thinking about Causation

I have recently written a paper entitled 'Creatio ex Nihilo in Luther's Genesis Commentary and the Causal Question'.  The paper argues, inter alia, that the most straightforward way of reading Luther in the Genesis Commentary is to claim that he holds: 'God causally brought about the creation of matter from nothing'. 

In itself this does not seem a particularly controversial claim.  However, when understood within the dominant theological paradigm since Kant, this statement seems highly suspect.   "Of course," the paradigm claims, "God created the heavens and the earth.  Everyone believes that.  It is just that God did not cause the earth to be.  To claim that would be a pernicious category mistake!"

But why should this be?  Why would it be problematical to claim that God causally brought about the universe from nothing?   Is this not straightforward?

It is only straightforward, it seems, if one does not think too deeply about the notion of causality.  Prior to the Enlightenement, it seems, philosophers often mistook reasons and causes.   Within and after the Enlightenment, philosophers have tended to understand causality empirically.  Physical things causally bring about other physical things.  This is the causal game properly played.   To say that the game itself was caused is to violate the rules of the game.  

Thinking about causality has tended to cluster around three views:  1)  Regular theories of causation, 2) Subjunctive and countracausal theories of causation, and 3) Intrinsic relational theories of causation. 

Accordingly, (1) claims 'A causes B' is analyzable into 'A precedes B', 'A-things are constantly conjoined to B-things' and some other conditions about which there is disagreement.  (2) holds that 'A causes B' is analyzable into 'if A were not to occur, B would not occur', or many other candidates.   Finally, (3) holds that there is some intrisic connection between A and B such B is directly produced from A.  (Let us not attend to the air of circularity at this point.) 

Clearly, if one were to want to claim that the universe was brought about by God, they could not hold a regularity theory of divine causation because the production of the universe is a singular event.  This leaves only option (2), (3) or some hybrid thereof.   Now the question arises as to what general tactic is better:  Is divine creatio ex nihilo best understood counterfactually or intrinsically?   My purpose in this blog is to explore a bit the notion of an intrinsic causal relation and ask whether it is possible for it to be utilized as the best analysis of divine causality creatio ex nihilo.  I will leave discussion of counterfactual divine causation to another time. 

The notion of an intrinsic causal relation takes aim at any Humean account of causation claiming that causality must be understood in terms of constant conjunction, temporal priority and spatio contiguity.   Accordingly, such an "externalist" account presupposes a widespread patterns of occurances.  In contravention to this, an intrinsic view of causality holds that cause is an intrinsic relation of power, energy or necessary connection.  I believe that the distinction between intrinsic/extrinsic relationality matter maps well to the distinction between singular causal statements versus "non-singularist" proposals.

According to a singularist approach the truthmaker for a single causal claim is a local relation holding between singular instances.   On this reading, the causal relation does not depend upon occurence of events in the neighborhood of the event in question; the causal relation is intrinsic to the relata and their connecting processes.  Instead of regularities as the truth makers of singular causal statements, local connections are.

The critical point in thinking about an intrinsic relation is this:  'A is intrinsically related to B' if and only if 'the relation is wholly determined by A and B'.   Over and against accounts that would unpack a relationship between A and B as determined by the regularities among a wide set of events and processes, the intrinsic connection of A and B supposes that there is something in A and something in B such that 'A causes B' cannot help but obtain.  

But now let us think about 'God causally brings about the existence of the universe'.   What properties of God and the universe obtain such that it is indeed necessary that 'God causally produces the universe'?

The obvious answer, of course, is that God has as God's very nature -- one might say His natural property -- a production of initial matter/energy and the subsequent formation thereof.  One might then say of the universe that is has its natural property of being produced by divine agency.   Accordingly, 'God creates the universe' is true because there is a being that is God whose nature it is to create, and a universe whose nature it is to be created.  To claim that 'God creates the universe ex nihilo' is simply to claim that there is a being that is God whose nature it is to create all things from absolute nothing, and a universe whose nature it is to be causally produced by the divine from absolute nothing. 

Now all this at one level might seem trivial.   Have we not simply performed some crude semantic joke?  Is it not the cause that we simply have moved the causal problem of divine/universe interaction from relations and placed it in entities having properties? 

At this point one must remember what the point is.   The point is to try to give an account of causality that is philosophically defensible.   Clearly if cause is an extrinsic relation, then we cannot give an account of the singular causal statement 'God creates the universe.'   What I have suggested is that this singular causal statement is captured by appeal to an intrinsic relation which itself is captured by the natural properties of the relata.  

The question whether or not their are any philosophical grounds for asserting the truth of the single causal statement is not one I wish to entertain here.   I take it that theology has always claimed that 'God creates the heavens and the earth'.  My point here is simply to show that it is conceptually coherent to think such divine/universe causality.   As it turns out, it is no category mistake.