Saturday, October 23, 2004

More about Occasionalism

Bill Vallicella at Maverick Philosopher has a great post discussing Hume and Occasionalism. I think he's quite right that Hume's theory is occasionalism without God; although Hume never puts it this way - and, indeed, I think, explicitly avoids doing so. What he does instead is to argue that we can have no direct knowledge of divine causation - all we can do is infer it from impressions. It is crucial to occasionalism that we have some sort of way to recognize God's unique causal ability - either faith, or reason, or both; since Malebranche regards Reason itself as God (in particular, the Divine Word), he thinks we have direct rational access to God's divine causality, and he thinks we can find occasionalism in Scripture. So, in essence, Malebranche's view is that we know God alone is true cause, and everything else is an occasional cause, because God has told us so (by rational illumination and by Scriptural revelation). If you set faith aside, and deny that we have direct rational access to the fact that God is true cause, but hold that Malebranche's arguments that creatures are not true causes are sound, then you get Hume. Hume, in fact, always puts the difference between himself and Malebranche in terms of "innate ideas" - or, as we would put it, as a difference between rationalism and empiricism. Since Malebranche's rationalism is a strong rationalism - Reason is God, quite literally - removing Reason from the mix the way Hume does is exactly the same thing as removing God from it. This is very clear in Section VII of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, on causation, which is the most clearly Malebranchean thing Hume ever wrote. In effect, Hume is using Malebranche's arguments to argue for his own position. I briefly noted some of the ways in which this was so for my class this summer; you can find the post at the old Houyhnhnm Land, here.

Vallicella ends:

Brandon's view appears to be that all genuine causation is agent- as opposed to event-causation, but that (contra Malebranche) there are non-divine agents including perhaps material bodies. How then does Brandon fit together divine causation with natural causation? Is he a concurrentist like Freddoso? I myself argue that occasionalism is defensible in contemporary terms. A sketch of my position is presented in my article, "Concurrentism or Occasionalism?" (Amer. Cath. Phil. Quart., Summer 1996, pp. 339-359.) Not yet available on-line.

I wouldn't quite put my view this way myself, since I think the term 'agent causation' as it is used today actually only covers a small part of what was covered by the pre-occasionalist view of causation: it was an attempt, explicit in both Berkeley and Reid, to preserve that view for minds or spirits alone. And I think its current usage bears the clear marks of the restriction, which I do not accept; it is a carry-over from idealism. However, if this is all kept in mind, I could indeed put my view of causation that way, i.e., all genuine causation is agent-causation, where there are non-divine agents including material bodies. The result of this (when added to other things) is that I am, indeed, a concurrentist. Freddoso is a concurrentist along the specific lines of Suarez and Molina; my concurrentism doesn't have quite that specificity, so I'm just a generic concurrentist, one might say. I'll have to look up Vallicella's article; this whole area is of interest to me. (Freddoso's papers on the subject are quite good; I used his paper on secondary causation last year twice, once for Berkeley and once for Malebranche.)

In August I translated a passage from Malebranche on the issue of providence and causation, in which he lays out the field as he sees it, and why he rejects concurrentism. (The translation is somewhat literal, which is why there are commas everywhere - Malebranche likes balancing and counterbalancing clauses, so tends to mark every turn of the sentence with commas.)

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