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Theology

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion                                         

4. Causation, Volition and God

 

1.   Causation and volition

 

By the term Causality, we refer to the relation between a cause and an effect. Without attempting from the outset to define the causal relation, which we apparently all have some sort of insight into, we may nevertheless notionally distinguish two primary and radically different expressions of it, or genera, which we shall call Causation and Volition. The study of these matters may be labeled ‘aetiology’.

Causality is, note well, a relation of some sort between two or more individual things or kinds of things[1]. If two things are not related by causation or volition, they are said to be ‘not causally related’ – without intention to exclude the possibility that each might have one or the other causal relation to certain other things. The notion of Spontaneity, which refers to events thought to be uncaused by anything else, will be considered later.

‘Causation’ is the term that we shall apply to deterministic causality, which may be loosely described as the causal relation between ‘natural’ things, qualities or events, which ‘makes’ them, individually or collectively, behave with certain regularities of conjunction or separation. A cause in causation may be called a ‘causative’.

This natural form of causality is definable with relative ease, with reference to conditional propositions of various types and forms. We tacitly understand the different forms of natural, temporal, extensional and logical conditioning as being expressions of an underlying ‘bond’, which we label causality, or more specifically causation. The patterns of behavior of things are empirically, and then inductively or deductively, identifiable[2]; the underlying causal ‘bond’ is a widespread intuitive assumption which requires much philosophical work to elucidate and validate.

The idea of causation may be viewed as arising from the three ‘laws of thought’, insofar as the latter establish the fundamental “if–then” relations, as in “if X, then X” (identity), “if X, then not notX” (non-contradiction) and “if not X, then notX” (exclusion of a middle), which mean “X and notX together are impossible” and “not X and not notX together are impossible”. For, once such relations are found to exist in the world and in discourse, i.e. in all the modes of modality, with regard to any term X and its negation notX, it becomes conceivable that similar relations may be observed to exist in less obvious cases, between certain other pairs of terms, like X and Y.

‘Volition’ is the term we shall apply to indeterministic causality, which may be loosely described as the causal relation between an agent and any action thereof, i.e. between a ‘person’ (be it God, a human being or an animal) and his[3] will (be it a personal attitude or a mental or physical motion of some sort). Note well that in volition per se, the ‘cause’ is the one who wills (at the precise time of willing), an entity called the agent or actor or doer, and the ‘effect’ is a specific act of will by that agent immediately, or thereafter more remotely any product thereof (which may or not have been intended).

This personal form of causality is far less easy to define. The simplest approach is by negation – to affirm that there is a causal ‘bond’ of some sort, while denying that it takes the form of natural, temporal, extensional or logical conditioning. Thus, volition refers to behavior which does not display fixed patterns, but in which we all nevertheless intuit a punctual causality. Indeed, we ought to say that the notion of a ‘bond’ is primarily due to the inner sense of will; it is then by analogy broadened, to include the ‘bonds’ between events external to the will. This seems true for the individual, and presumably in the history of thought[4].

The development of this fundamental, common notion of causal bond from the will to natural events proceeds as follows: whatever remains evidently unaffected by our efforts, no matter what anyone wills, is regarded as naturally ‘stuck together’ or ‘connected’. Thus, whereas volition may be defined in part by denial of the forms of natural causality (conditioning), causation is in turn defined in part by denial of the power of personal causality.[5]

Natural or deterministic causality displays patterns, accessible directly or indirectly by empirical means (they proceed from concrete perceptions, which are then generalized; or inferences from such), but its underlying bonding aspect is known only by analogy, as a conceptual development. Personal or indeterministic causality, on the other hand, is grasped first empirically (in the way of an intuited abstraction, through an inner ‘sense’ of oneself willing), and then formally distinguished by denial of ultimate invariability.

Note again that causality is essentially a relation. Since we do not perceive the relation but only at best its terms, it is not phenomenal; i.e. it has no material sensible qualities or mental equivalents of such. It is apprehended by us, as already suggested, through intuition during acts of volition, and inferred by analogy (a conceptual act) to exist similarly in causation. It is thus better characterized as an abstraction.

The statistical aspect of causation – and, by negation, that in volition – is secondary, though also a relational aspect. The latter is ontologically a mere expression of the relation, and epistemologically a way for us to discern and classify the causality. Whether the underlying relation is, or ought to be believed to be, a real ‘substance’, or whether it is a convenient projection of the imagination, is a moot question. But pragmatically speaking it is not very important, if at all possible, to find the answer.

An interesting distinction between deterministic and indeterministic causality is that individual connections are known in the former case solely by virtue of general connections, whereas in the latter case they are known per se.

  • That is to say, causation involves natural laws or uniformities[6]: it is from our knowledge that one kind of thing causes another kind of thing that we know that an instance of the first kind of thing has caused an instance of the second kind of thing.[7]
  • In contrast, in volition we cannot refer to induced or deduced generalities of that sort to establish a causal connection between agent and will, since by definition such connection is always singular and unpredictable.[8]

As with any other concept, the concept of will ought not be regarded as devoid of terms and conditions (“terms” here referring to the ontological identities of the surrounding entities, and “conditions” to their current temporal and spatial alignments, and their states and motions). The indeterminism of volition is always bound and circumscribed by the determinism of certain terms and conditions, i.e. by causative factors. A power of volition does not mean omnipotence, total power to do just anything; it is an allowance for a limited range of two or more possible effects, whose cause is not a causative but an agent. The oft-used expression “causes and conditions” is usually intended to mean “volitions and causations”, i.e. volitional causes and surrounding causative conditions.

Volition seems closely allied to consciousness. The range of an organism’s volitional powers apparently depends on the range of its powers of cognition. Animals with simple organs of sensation have simple organs of movement. More complex sensory systems allow for proportionately more complex motor systems.

Evidently, each entity has its own ‘nature’, its own naturally given facilities and constraints, to be actualized directly or indirectly. For each entity, some things are ‘willable’, but some are not. Some things can be willed in certain circumstances, but not in others. Some things are easily willed at a given time, while at other times only with great difficulty.

Different species have different ranges in relation to each activity. Man can do things flies cannot, like invent a rocket to the moon. Flies can do things men cannot, like fly around without machines. Similarly, within each species, individuals vary in their range. I can do things you cannot do, however much you try, and vice-versa; though we also have many abilities in common. Yet even these common powers may differ slightly: you can perhaps run faster than I, etc.

 

2.   Necessity and inertia in causation

 

Pursuing the analysis of causation and volition, we must consider intermediate or allied relationships which relate together these two domains of causality. For deeper description of causation, the reader is referred to my The Logic of Causation[9].

In natural causality or determinism, we must distinguish between necessary causation and inertial causation.

Our understanding of the term ‘nature’ refers primarily to necessary relations, such that no matter what else happens in the world, that particular sequence of two things is bound to happen, i.e. once the one arises, the other is bound to also arise. The specifics may vary from case to case, with regard to time (the sequence may be simultaneous or at a set time after or some time later), place (here, there) and other respects; but the correlation is inflexible. Most of the causative events in the world proceed thus, relentlessly, as inevitable and invariable courses of events that no other natural event and all the more no volition (or at least no human or animal volition) can prevent or in any way deviate. For example, the Sun’s evolution and trajectory are de facto out of our power to interfere with.

On the other hand, it seems, some causative sequences are avoidable or subject to volitional manipulation. Such natural courses of events may be characterized as inertial. They are strictly speaking conditional causation, i.e. sequences that are bound to occur provided no volitional (human or animal – or eventually Divine) intervention occurs. For example, the river Nile would have continued to flood over yearly, had people not built a dam at Aswan. Or again, closer to home, my breath continues rhythmically, if I do not willfully hold it or change its rhythm.

Thus, whereas the concept of necessary nature concerns causation alone, the concept of inertial nature refers to an interface between causation and volition. When volition does intervene in the course of nature, we say that an artificial event has replaced the inertial event. The artificial event is of course ‘natural’ in a larger sense – a natural potential; but it is a potential that will never actualize without volitional intervention. For example, a piece of clay will never become a pot by mere erosion.

We would express causation in formal terms as (in its strongest determination): “If X occurs, then Y occurs; and if X does not occur, then Y does not occur[10]. Weaker relations are definable with reference to compounds, replacing ‘X’ by ‘X1 and X2 and X3...’ and ‘Y’ by ‘Y1 or Y2 or Y3...’ as the case may be.[11]

When volition interferes, simply one of the causal factors – be it the whole ‘X’ (as rarely happens) or a part ‘X1’ – refers to the volitional act, and the rest ‘X2’, ‘X3’, etc. (if any) constitutes natural ingredients and forces[12], and the effect is an artificial event ‘Y’. In such cases, the conditional “if X, then Y” or “if X1, plus X2 etc., then Y” is operative.

When volition abstains, the preceding volitional causal factor is negated, i.e. ‘not X’ or ‘not X1’ is true, and natural causal factors come to the fore, i.e. ‘X2’ etc., resulting in an inertial event, ‘not Y’. In such case, the conditional “if not X, then not Y” or “if notX1, plus X2 etc., then not Y” is operative.

Thus, there is nothing antinomian about causative relations involving volition at some stage. The event willed, once willed, acts like any other causative, complete or partial, necessary or contingent, within the causative complex concerned. The only difference being that this causative did not emerge from natural processes, but from volition.

It should be noted that volition, unlike causation, is not (or rather, not entirely[13]) formally definable with reference to conditional propositions. That is the main difficulty in the concept of volition, which has baffled so many philosophers.

It is true that if you ask someone to demonstrate to you he has freewill, he will likely answer: “see, if I but will to move my arm, it moves; and if I decide not to, it does not”. But such arguments ad libitum (‘at his pleasure’) have little weight, since the antecedents are the volitional events we are trying to define or at least prove, and the consequents are merely effects of them (as it happens, in this example, indirect effects, dependent on bodily conditions – but the same can be said of indirect mental effects and even of direct effects within the soul itself). Therefore, one may well object to the tested person: “what made you will to move or not move your arm?” Even if the latter attempts to preempt such objection by saying: “whatever I predict I shall will (or not-will), or you tell me to will (or not-will), I can do so”, or better still: “whatever a machine randomly tells me to will (or not-will), I shall do it”, one may still suppose that the instruction given by the human respondent or by the machine becomes a determining causative, rather than a mere suggestion, in the mind of the tested person. In that case, the apparent act of volition would only be a mechanical effect of such instruction.

Thus, conditional propositions cannot be used to define or even prove volition, without tautology or circularity or infinite regression or paradox. This does not however logically imply that volition does not exist[14]. There may well be other ways to define or at least prove it. We can still minimally each refer to his intuitive experience of personal will, as source and confirmation of the concept.

Note that the dividing line between necessity and inertia may shift over time. Some feats are de facto out of our power one day, and later become feasible (for example, walking on the moon was until recently in fact impossible). Or the opposite may occur: something at first possible to us becomes impossible at a later time (for example, certain damages to the brain make the victim lose many cognitive and motor powers). Necessity may be permanent or temporary, acquired or lost; and so with inertia.

The ‘not yet possible’ is so due to time-constraints: there may be physical, psychological or cognitive/intellectual impediments to overcome before the necessary factors can be lined up; once it occurs or is brought about, we admit it as having always been possible ‘in principle’ though not immediately. The ‘no longer possible’ is so due to the irreversible destruction of some faculty or the erection of some impassable barrier, or to lost opportunity; what was previously possible, since the beginning of or during the existence of the entity or entities concerned, has become impossible. Thus, what is causative necessity at one time may be mere inertia at another, and vice versa.

Also, of course, the powers of different individuals of a given species, or of different species, differ. Consequently, what is necessity relative to one individual or species, is mere inertia to another; and vice versa. Nevertheless, at any given time and place, we can state as absolute principle either that no human or animal is in fact capable of affecting a certain natural course of events (so that that course is necessary), or that some specified individuals of some specified group have the volitional power to do so if they so choose (so that the course is inertial). The same distinction between necessity and inertia can be used to harmonize our assumptions of God’s all-powerful volition and of causation in nature (see below).

With regard to the epistemological underpinning of the above ontological statements, it should be stressed that our knowledge of causation is inductively acquired.

The proposition “If X is followed by Y, then X causes Y” may logically be assumed to be true, especially if the X+Y combination is repeatedly found to occur, until and unless it is found that X is sometimes not followed by Y. In other words, the movement of thought known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc (meaning “after this, therefore because of this”), though deductively a fallacy, is not fallacious in itself but only in view of a larger context. The observed sequence “X is followed by Y”, like any empirical datum, may be regarded as a basis for generalization, provided it is understood that the generality “X causes Y” may require eventual particularization if further experience suggests it[15]. Gradual adjustment of such generalizations allows us to identify more complex conditions and more variable causal relations.

The relationship between necessary and inertial causation is thus one of generality and (relative) particularity, respectively. They are two levels of generalization, differing only in degree. The first is an optimistic upward thrust to the extreme, yielding an apparent absolute; the second is a downward correction of that to a more relative status, in view of evident volitional access. They are both inductive; but one has remained unconditional, whereas the other has been judged conditional upon non-exercise of volition.

 

3.   Direct and indirect volition

 

Another interface between the domains of volition and causation is brought out with reference to the distinction between direct volition and indirect volition. At this stage, we need only treat these terms superficially; they will be further clarified further on.

In direct volition, whether immediate or far-reaching, the effect is inevitable; i.e. that which is willed occurs irrespective of surrounding circumstances. In indirect volition, the effect is a later product of direct volition, dependent on the appropriate circumstances being present. Something directly willed may be attributed exclusively the agent, because causation is not involved in it at all; or if it is involved, it has the strongest determination, i.e. it is complete and necessary causation. Something indirectly willed has mixed parentage: although the motion in that direction is initiated by the agent, its exact course thereafter may vary according the terms and conditions it encounters in its onward journey; i.e. partial and/or contingent causation is involved somewhere along the line.

The causal relation between an agent and what he wills is, strictly speaking, direct, if what he wills automatically and invariably follows his willing it (whether immediately in time or not): the consequence is inevitable, whatever happens in nature thereafter and whatever anyone does in an attempt to interfere. Indirect volition refers to a weaker bond, which is actually a sequence of two causal events: (a) a direct volition, followed by (b) a conditional causation. In such case, the thing willed does not invariably or automatically follow the willing of it, for the simple reason that subsequent natural events or other volitions may in the meantime interfere and prevent the full realization that the volition was directed at.

As the formal notation for volition, we may use “A wills W”, to mean “agent A wills action W”, so as to abide by the familiar subject-copula-predicate schema. This is not mere convention, but serves to imply that the relationship itself (‘willing’) is uniform in all its occurrences, and that what gives every specific act of will its particularity is the agent doing it (A) and the direction or result of the action (W).

Note that although the word ‘wills’ is used, to explicitly indicate the involvement of will, in practice other words are of course used, in which the fact of will is tacit. The words ‘do’ or ‘make’ or ‘produce’, for instances, are common; but they are ambiguous in that they are not always indicative of volition. Mostly, rather than the two words “wills W”, we would have a specific one-word verb in the form “Ws”; for examples, ‘walks’, ‘sings’, ‘thinks’ or ‘hopes’, rather than ‘wills walking’, ‘wills hoping’, etc.

We may distinguish between acts of will proper, and the absence of such acts. In more formal terms, this refers to a distinction between “A wills notW” and “A does not will W”, although sometimes in practice the dividing line is moot (depending as it does on the degree of consciousness involved). These – willing and not-willing – are two significant subclasses of will in the larger sense, which we may label positive and negative will, or activity and passivity, respectively. It should be obvious that not-willing may often be viewed as an act of will of sorts, at least when our inclination is very much to act and we have to restrain ourselves from doing so. For this reason, logical considerations relative to will should also be applied mutadis mutandis to non-will – for any creature endowed with the power of volition concerned.

To say that A can will W does not necessarily mean that A can will W at will, i.e. directly and immediately; it may be that A can only arrive at W indirectly and over time, through a process, by stages, first willing W1 in certain specific circumstances, then willing W2 in other appropriate circumstances, and so forth… till W occurs. That is, ability in principle does not signify ability without submission to terms and conditions[16]. The distinction between direct and indirect volition can then be formally expressed as follows.

  • Direct volition: “If A wills W, then W occurs”.
  • Indirect volition: “If A wills W, and conditions X, Y, Z... (or the like) occur in conjunction, naturally or volitionally, then W occurs; but if A wills W and appropriate conditions do not also occur, then W does not occur”.

Thus, in the case of direct volition, that which the will aims at is identical with the outcome of the will (‘W’ in both cases). Whereas, in the case of indirect volition, the will’s aim (whatever makes one call it a will of ‘W’) is not always identical with the produced effect, call it ‘V’, because the will put forth is by itself insufficient to guarantee the emergence of ‘W’ but does so only when and if certain surrounding factors (X, Y, Z…) are duly lined up. Whenever will stirs, it is sure to produce some minimal effect V (if only within the agent of it, possibly in the mental or even material surrounds); but that effect (V) may correspond to the will’s aim (V=W) or may not do so (V<>W): if it necessarily does so, the volition may be classified as direct, otherwise it is indirect.[17]

Thus, to repeat, a number of partial causes give rise to W. One of those is the willing of (aimed at) W, in itself a direct volition by the agent. If this happens to find appropriate partial causes as its surrounds (X, Y, Z, … or the like), it will have indirectly produced W. Otherwise, it will produce something else that is not W. The agent may of course be able to arrive at the same goal by means of different direct volitional acts even on the same platform of conditions (and all the more so as conditions vary). For instance, one may travel from point P to point Q in a number of ways.

The required conditions may be natural factors like a functioning nervous and muscular system, or physical or mental factors (like a machine or a guidebook) caused by other acts of will by the same agent or others. So long as they affect the course of events, they are relevant to the volition and its classification as direct or indirect. The conditions may of course be necessary or contingent; i.e. there may be only one set of circumstances that make possible the result in question, or there may be many possible alternatives.

Although we often in practice regard a volition as effectively ‘direct’ if normal conditions (like a healthy body and mind, etc.) are present, because those inanimate conditions could not without such a will produce such an effect, strictly speaking it is of course not so if a change of conditions would obstruct or divert it in any way. The intent here is to stress the fundamental distinction between the activity of volition and the relative passivity of its preconditions.

 

4.   Matter-mind and spirit

 

The compatibility of causation and volition (and likewise natural spontaneity) is undeniable. Nothing precludes that a bit of each exists in our world, in the way of adjacent and interacting domains. Volition is to causation like the holes in Swiss cheese. Causation may apply in most processes, with the exception of a few where volition is applicable.

The distinction between a mechanical ‘agent’ and an ‘agent’ in the sense intended within the concept of volition must be clarified. Volition is essentially active, while causation is essentially passive. When we say that an agent of volition does, acts, makes or produces something – we attach special significance to these terms based on introspection. When we use similar terms with reference to causation (e.g. to a machine), their connotation is much diluted, since in this domain everything occurs in the way of automatic reaction.

When we say of a machine, or even a plant, that it does or causes something, we mean that some quality or motion of it gives rise to some other quality or motion of it (or of something else, possibly building up a new entity thereby). But we do not literally mean that the machine or plant itself, even presuming some spontaneity in the coming-to-be of its qualities or motions, has achieved the result. On the other hand, in the case of volition, the person (God, human or animal) as a unitary whole somehow from a static posture initiates/originates some change or motion in his immediate environment, and in some cases from thence further out. It is in this sense that we will here understand the term ‘agent’: with the underlying concept of responsibility.

Whereas in causation cause and effect may be spatially and temporally, as well as conceptually, separate — in volition, the immediate act of will must be considered as occurring within or emanating out of the actor (his self, soul or spirit), and not beyond him in the surrounding mind or brain or wider nervous system or body: such eventual consequences of it are not entirely within the power and responsibility of the actor, but depend on other factors, as already explained.

Thus, whereas causation may be viewed as concerned essentially with sequences of events (in the large sense) within the material/physical, mental/imaginative and psychosomatic world, volition should be viewed as concerning the spiritual world and its interface or interaction with that world of causation or nature. Once volition has injected its choices into the course of nature, it (i.e. nature) carries on – but on a new course; volition thus deviates the flow of causation from another (higher or deeper) plane.

Inertias and conditions are therefore two aspects of the interaction of soul and nature. Inertias are the way nature goes if volition does not interfere; conditions are the factors of nature that come into play when volition does interfere. The ones occur in the absence of volition, the others in its presence. Some things (indeed most) are beyond the power of volition to affect – they are classed as within the realm of natural necessity (and possibly, in some cases, as natural spontaneity).

All of which brings us to the causal relation of Influence. Under this important concept, we shall (further on) more closely study the ways the agent of will may be affected by natural events or by other agents of will.

 

5.   Conceiving Divine volition

 

If we conceive God as existent and omnipotent, we must regard all natural necessities as mere inertias relative to Him, with the exception of logical necessities (i.e. that facts are facts, that contradictions are impossible, that there is no middle ground between existence and non-existence – and other such self-evident truths, whose contradictories are self-contradictory).

Such a premise does not hinder scientific knowledge, since all our knowledge of natural laws is ultimately based on generalizations from empirical particulars, anyway! To say that God can, if He so chooses, interfere with any natural law, does not imply that God will ever choose to do so. We can argue that it was His will to institute such laws in the first place, even though He left Himself the possibility of exceptional interference[18]. Thus, all natural necessities relative to all us lesser beings may be considered as effectively necessities, even if we admit that they are strictly speaking inertias that could in principle be abrogated by God’s will.

This position must be differentiated from the so-called Occasionalism of philosophers like Al-Ghazali (1059-1111): the latter deny natural causation in favor of universal Divine volition, whereas our position here is to reconcile the two. We do not here claim God to be the direct cause of everything that happens in the world, but only conceive Him as having the power to interfere at will although in the great majority of cases He abstains from its exercise. Al-Ghazali, a Moslem, remains commendable in having repudiated the idea of Avicenna (or Ibn Sina, 980-1037), based on Greek philosophy, that the material world was a necessary consequence of God, insisting instead that it was a product of God’s will. Al-Ghazali thought he had to resort to denial of all natural causation to achieve that refutation; but as shown here, it was an excessive measure.[19]

Many thinkers have turned away from the ideas of Divine creation of and intervention in nature, by the assumption that these ideas logically implied Divine responsibility for all events in the world, denial of natural law and conflict with human freewill. However, a consistent hypothesis is possible, if we well understand the difference between natural necessity and inertia, as well as that between a direct and an indirect cause. In respect of the latter, it is worth quoting verbatim a passage of my Buddhist Illogic[20]:

“It should be pointed out here that ‘creation’ does not simply mean causality by God of (the rest of) the universe. The presumed type of causality involved is volition, a free act of will, rather than causation. Furthermore, God is not conceived as the direct cause of everything in the universe, but merely as First Cause and Prime Mover, i.e. as the cause of its initial contents and their initial movement, as well as of the ‘laws of nature’ governing them. This might be taken to mean, in a modern perspective, the core matter subject to the Big Bang, the ignition of that explosion and the programming of the evolution of nature thereafter, including appearance of elementary particles, atoms of increasing complexity, stars and planets, molecules, living cells, evolution of life forms, organisms with consciousness and will, and so forth (creationism need not be considered tied to a literal Biblical scenario).

Once God has willed (i.e. created) inchoate nature, it continues on its course in accordance with causation, with perhaps room for spontaneous events (as quantum mechanics suggests) and for localized acts of volition (by people, and perhaps higher animals, when they appear on the scene). As already mentioned, there are degrees of causation; and when something causes some second thing that in turn causes some third thing, it does not follow that the first thing is a cause of the third, and even in cases where it is (thus indirectly) a cause, the degree of causation involved may be diminished in comparison with the preceding link in the chain (dampening). Similarly with volition, the cause of a cause may be a lesser cause or not a cause at all. It is therefore inaccurate to regard a First Cause, such as God is conceived to be relative to nature, as being ‘cause of everything’ lumped together irrespective of process. The succession of causal events and the varieties of causal relations involved, have to be taken into consideration.

Spontaneity of physical events and freedom of individual (human or animal) volition are not in logical conflict with creation, because they still occur in an existence context created by God. God may well be the indirect cause of spontaneous or individually willed events, in the sense of making them possible, without being their direct cause, in the sense of making them necessary or actualizing them. Furthermore, to affirm creation does not logically require that we regard, as did some Greek philosophers, God as thereafter forced to let Nature follow its set course unhindered. It is conceivable that He chooses not to interfere at all; but it is equally conceivable that He chooses to interfere punctually, occasionally changing the course of things (this would be what we call ‘miracle’, or more broadly ‘providence’), or even at some future time arresting the world altogether. His being the world’s initiator need not incapacitate Him thereafter from getting further involved.

All that I have just described is conceivable, i.e. a consistent theory of creation, but this does not mean that it is definitely proven, i.e. deductively self-evident or inductively the only acceptable vision of things in the context of all available empirical data. Note well that I am not trying to give unconditional support to religious dogmas of any sort. Rather, I am reacting to the pretensions of many so-called scientists today, who (based on very simplistic ideas of causality and causal logic) claim that they have definitely disproved creation, or who like Nagarjuna claim that it is logically not even thinkable. Such dogmas are not genuine philosophy. One should never let oneself be intimidated by either priestly or academic prestige, but always remain open-minded and consider facts and arguments impartially and fairly.”

 

6.   Spiritual Darwinism

 

Can Darwinism, properly conceived (and not as some have historically misconstrued it), assist the humanities (i.e. ethical, social, economic and political discourse)? The time frame of biological evolution is very long, very much longer than the span of human history. The humanities mainly draw on the latter for their empirical data, to predict what forms of social behavior and organization are likely to bring good or bad to individual humans, human groups or humanity as a whole. The survival of the human (and other) species is a legitimate standard of judgment for the humanities, drawn from biology. But within that broad framework, many conjectures are possible, between which we can only judge with reference to history, if only approximately. Many questions faced by humanity remain unanswerable, whether we look to biology or to history, for the simple reason that they deal with novel issues that have no precedent in the past.

In any case, we have seen in the present work the specificity of human beings, in terms of their degree of consciousness and volition compared to other animals. These two differentia are radical enough to suggest that whatever conclusions biology may come to with respect to life in general, it has to reconsider them very carefully when trying to apply them specifically to homo sapiens. A species that displays such major distinctions is bound to be subject to some more specific, less mechanistic biological considerations. Our fate cannot be left to chance. If humans have the power of choice, then their nature is to refer to ethical discourse, to help them decide in a pondered manner what courses to follow.

It is important in this context to understand the term ‘survival’ in a large and deep sense. Ultimately, it does not just mean physical continuity at all costs; this is only minimal survival. There are greater degrees of survival, ranging from physical health up through psychological wellbeing to spiritual life. The human being, especially, is no mere body, but a largely mental and spiritual entity. Mankind is not just driven by matter, but has other, seemingly ‘higher’ considerations. Consequently, the standards of success or failure may be different for humans than for other species.

A person may succeed materially but woefully fail in other dimensions of his or her being. Another may fail in the material domain yet succeed in the intellectual or spiritual domain. Who is ‘better off’? If we insist on applying ‘genetic perpetuation’ as the only conceivable biological norm, we will prefer the first. But if we allow that at the human level of existence other issues may be involved, we may prefer the second. The fact is, many people are no longer subject to the reproductive instinct, and choose to have sex lives without begetting children, or to become monks or nuns.

Physically, they are naturally selected out; but what does that prove? Perhaps some of the latter function on another evolutionary scale, wherein it is not the genes that matter most but the soul. Perhaps genes only exist to eventually give rise to souls, or as vehicles for souls. The materialist interpretation of things is not necessarily the final word. I mean, from an ethical point of view, it is just a doctrine like any other.

It could be argued, in accord with the biological principle of evolution, that the soul ‘evolved’ in certain forms of living organism, as an instrument of the body, improving the body’s chances of survival and reproduction. In a materialist perspective, ‘spiritual philosophy’ may then be considered as an aberration, whereby the tool (the soul) has forgotten its original function and acquired the pretension that it is life’s goal and that the body must serve it. But it is equally conceivable that, once the soul appeared on the biological scene, it surpassed all other considerations in the material pursuits of the organisms that had one.

The latter perspective might be characterized as ‘Spiritual Darwinism’ – or as the salvation of the morally fittest – a doctrine diametrically opposed to that of historical ‘Social Darwinism’, which refers to the physical or political dominion of thugs. If we reflect, the spiritual principle of salvation of the morally fittest is nothing new; it has always been the basis of spiritual philosophies like Judaism or Buddhism. Some people advance on the spiritual path, and some are left behind or regress. Some people make the effort to evolve spiritually and are ‘saved’ or ‘enlightened’; others refuse to use their life constructively, and remain in darkness or sink further down. So it goes – and few, very few, find their way to true ‘survival’ – i.e. ‘eternal life’.

 

7.   Theological perspectives

 

Some observers, mostly out of religious motives, do resist the conclusion that there is evolution of species. They point to extreme mathematical improbabilities (approaching zero) of the proposed ‘changes’ taking place in the time paleontology makes available for them. They also offer statistical arguments against the possibility of life originating spontaneously by random combinations of molecules, in the first half to one billion or even full 4.6 billion years of the earth, or even the roughly 15 billion years of the universe. Furthermore, they argue that the alignment of astronomical and specifically earthly physical conditions necessary for life to emerge was too improbable for chance to be claimed.[21]

Such mathematical objections are certainly impressive, at least to a layman like me. One could for a start retort that the improbable is not quite impossible. Moreover, it may be that there are as yet undiscovered natural processes, or laws of nature, that would significantly reduce mathematical improbabilities once factored into their equations. Before rushing to a non-naturalist conclusion, however satisfying, it would seem to me wise (more in accord with inductive logic) to search for such missing data or laws.[22]

Objectors also contend that the paleontological record still has many significant gaps – and that till such ‘missing links’ are found, any such conclusion would be premature. They argue that the existence of such apparent discontinuities after over a hundred years of extensive research could be regarded as evidence of real discontinuity.

But with regard to evolutionary transition, these critics give no natural explanation as to how new species might appear without gradually emerging by procreation from previous species. To me, evolutionary continuity is more credible than discontinuity, because it is easier to explain missing links by the reasonable suppositions that (a) the populations of missing species were perhaps relatively small and short-lived, (b) the traces of most living specimens have been destroyed by natural processes over time, and (c) most of the few extant traces are too dispersed and well concealed to have been found – than to try and otherwise explain the observed abrupt appearance of fossils of numerous new species.

Such critics do not propose a hypothesis about jumps from one life form to the next by ordinary reproduction or other natural processes, but one of successive species creations; i.e. they appeal to ongoing miracles long after the initial Creation of the world. So, although their criticism of gradualism is in principle acceptable to naturalists insofar as there are unanswered questions (viz. the missing links), their suggestion of miraculous change is understandably not well received. It lacks weight, not because of atheistic prejudice, but because it is methodologically weak, since a simpler hypothesis (small and ephemeral populations, and destruction, dispersion and concealment of traces) does exist.

Certainly, modern biologists actively address the question and openly debate the issues. They consider four or five patterns of change, based on the fossil record, namely “phyletic change” (gradual “change within a single lineage of organisms”), “cladogenesis” (“splitting of lineages” based on the “founder effect”), “adaptive radiation” (“sudden – in geologic time – diversification… associated with the opening up of new biological frontiers”), and “punctuated equilibria” (based on “allopatric speciation”), as well as extinction. The theories proposed by Ernst Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, and Steven M. Stanley, are all intended to provide scientific answers to this interesting question of “the tempo of evolution”.[23]

One body of the evidence for evolution perhaps most disturbing to creationism is the great number and diversity of species existing and having existed on this planet, as well as the cantonment of different species in different geographical niches. A creationist would say this proves the richness of God’s imagination, and his making special spaces for each of His creations. However, if God’s ultimate purpose was specifically, as the Bible commentators claim, the creation of humans and the drama of their redemption, why go about it in such a roundabout way?

When the accepted scenario was as in the Bible narrative a seven-day process, mankind could seem like its crowning achievement. But now that science envisions a process of many billions of years, involving the birth, life and death, of innumerable individual organisms and species, only at the very end of which, some 6,000 years ago, does historical man appear, one may well wonder what that was all about!

Why did some species – which may look ugly and stupid to us – exist for hundreds of millions of years and then vanish without descendants in some natural catastrophe? An omniscient Being would not need to make ‘experiments’ before getting to the point. Although faith is shaken by such reflections, the idea of evolution should certainly not be regarded as intrinsically anti-theistic. Perhaps we ought to view God not as a linear technician, but as a fine artist who wished to add richness and depth to His creation.

However described, evolution can also be imagined as a process run by God, so that what looks like mechanism or chance is really hidden intention. We can say either: (a) He programmed the whole thing since Creation; or: (b) He is behind the scenes at every stage, choosing each turning at every major fork of the way. Or again: He created genes capable of a great many possible combinations and mutations, either (a) letting them naturally change, as secular science proposes, or (b) using them as a potential array of tools for providential interference, as religion prefers. In any case, there is no problem, no difficulty in reconciling the two viewpoints.

As I have made clear throughout, I am personally persistently open to the idea of Divine intervention. But I prefer to leave it as a personal faith (I stress the words personal and faith) applicable to any and all results of science, and not as a thesis in competition with scientific ones. This position makes it possible for me to retain my own faith in God, come what may in science. Whatever scientists at any time decide seems a true description of nature, I say: “OK—that was obviously God’s will”; and if scientists change their mind later on the basis of new evidence or discourse, I just say “OK” again!

The very possibility of such flexibility shows that nothing science discovers or concludes about the world can ever affect faith in God. The notion of God is indeed (as Karl Popper suggested) unfalsifiable; this may make it irrelevant to most scientific inquiry, but still does not falsify it. This is one sense in which we can think of God as an absolute: our idea of Him is not relative to any particular view of the world, but compatible with all (though of course, this is no proof of God).

However, this principle of tolerance fails if one insists on a rigid literal (as against allegorical) interpretation of certain religious texts, and refuses to constantly readapt one’s detailed beliefs to current empirical data and theorizing, continuing to promote received doctrines against all evidence and rational argument, so as to seem unshakably faithful.

The psychology of religious fanaticism is worth looking at. The fanatic seeks to appear firmly religious, thinking that such behavior demonstrates possession of the virtues of courage and loyalty. But in fact, beneath this veneer and bombast, excessive religiosity is on the contrary a mark of cowardice and betrayal, which the clerical class (of whatever persuasion) has historically often shown itself adept at exploiting. The victims (and ultimately the clerics are victims too, of course) are taught intellectual abdication, i.e. to relinquish their experience and reason when it contradicts religious dogma, under the threat that if they have different opinions (however well based and argued) they will lose God’s and the religious community’s acceptance.

The same frame of mind is programmed in people within a totalitarian society (like Nazism or Communism): to avoid punishment and obtain rewards, on a more material plane, they will admit and do anything the powers-that-be suggest or demand. I do believe that ‘fear of God’ is a good attitude, a religious teaching that many people unfortunately lack; but I cannot conceive God as wishing people to deny and incapacitate their own minds and those of their neighbors. Truth cannot be served by lying or pretending. Spiritual growth relies on honest witness and rational criticism.

An open-minded religious attitude need not be construed as an outright denial of revelation, or of its historicity; but as an admission that such revelation, if it occurred, may well have been formulated in the context of knowledge of man and the world at the historical moment of its occurrence, because its purpose was not anticipation of material information but timeless spiritual guidance. Inversely, any gainsay by scientists of the possibility or existence of God in the context of their findings and ideas is pretentious – it is using their (well-deserved) prestige beyond the limits of their field of study, making ‘inferences’ that are logically unjustified.

Religious people who resist science[24] do not bring credit to religion, but make it seem mentally retarded. It seems to me, granting God exists, that modern science has aggrandized rather than belittled the idea of God. Until recently, the scenario we imagined and believed of the creation of the universe, of the earth, of life and of mankind was very simple. The heavens were not very high, time was not very long, everything was relatively ready-formed and static, the earth was a small theater, and life on it a minor drama.

Now, the universe is perhaps 15 billion years old, containing billions of galaxies each with billions of stars, and black holes, all in motion, expanding. Inanimate matter has itself ‘evolved’ from quarks to electrons, protons and neutrons, to small atoms, to stars and larger atoms, to stars again and planets, to water molecules and carbon, to life. On earth, there have been massive geological and climatic changes, living organisms appearing and diversifying, a bewildering variety of individual and species fates in a changing environment, punctuated by a few gigantic natural catastrophes causing mass extinctions.

All sorts of weird and wonderful creatures have inhabited this planet for hundreds of millions of years, long before we and most of our most visible neighbors appeared on it. It has been estimated that “less than 1/10 of 1 percent, perhaps less than 1/1,000 of 1 percent”[25] of species ever existing are currently in existence. Humans (in their present garb) are only very recent arrivals on the time line of life on earth. Other species, very similar to humans, lived and disappeared; some even coexisted with our ancestors for tens of thousands of years before dying out.

Surely, this new scenario is much more interesting and impressive. Imagine the unfolding drama of it all over the whole sweep of time. If anything, it glorifies God!

 

Drawn from Volition and Allied Causal Concepts (2004), Chapters 1:1, 2:1-4, 15:2 (part) and 15:3.

 

 

[1]           The Latin root causa refers to a purpose or motive, but I am not sure what its deeper etymology might be. A related Latin term is causari, meaning quarrel or dispute. Related terms in French are une cause (a court case), causer (to converse) and maybe chose (thing); in a legal context, the thing that causes, i.e. the cause, is sought through discussion about it. The etymological issue is just one aspect of the history of the concept of cause in all its guises, which has yet to be written.

[2]           See my work Future Logic, parts III and IV, for a thorough analysis of conditioning.

[3]           I will use the pronoun ‘he’, for the sake of brevity and readability, in a general sense, meaning He (God), he/she (a human being) or it (an animal) – i.e. any ‘person’, any entity capable of being an agent, who has the power of will. I do not by this terminology intend to express an opinion as to whether all animals have ‘personality’; perhaps only the higher animals do, but not insects or bacteria. I only wish to make allowance for the possibility, not exclude it offhand. Likewise, with regard to God – I do not, by mentioning Him, intend to express religious views. Even in the case of humans, no doctrine is intended here that all their actions are volitional. (Animists, by the way, would regard even stones as having some measure of will; some 19th Cent. German philosophers spoke romantically of the Will as a sort of general force of Nature.) Our essential object of study, here, is the abstract fact of volition or agency, and not so much its particular (real or assumed) concretizations. All this will become clear later when we discuss the natural limits of volition.

[4]           It does seem – though much research would be needed to establish it indubitably as historical fact – that mankind initially explained (as of when it sought explanations) all natural motions anthropomorphically with reference to volition rather than causation. That seems to be one thrust of animist belief, which projects local spirits, genies or gods into rivers, the soil, fire, the sky and other objects (including abstract ones, by the way – e.g. assigning a spirit to the tribe) to explain their movements. Magic and ritual were used to tame or at least deflect these ‘forces of nature’. Modern philosophers, of course, are trying to do the opposite, i.e. to somehow explain volition with reference to causation or some similarly impersonal process. Nevertheless, traces of underlying ‘naturism’ unconsciously subsist in the common reference, even in scientific discourse, to a personified Nature that ‘does’ things as if it has ‘ends’ and that makes ‘laws’. This can also be viewed as a sort of secularized theism, which masks its identity by seeming to de-personify God. Of course, even the concepts of spirit and will are not innate; they must have a long and complex history, within and before mankind. Since their emergence probably antedates oral or written works of religion, philosophy or literature, we must examine archeological evidence (such as prehistoric funerary practices or ritual objects) to guess when and how they may have developed.

[5]           Pitting Nature and Persons against each other, as it were: if the former wins, we have causation; if the latter, we have volition.

[6]           The insight that causation concerns kinds rather than instances may be attributed to Hart and Honoré; at least, I learned it from their work. It explains why the reasoning “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (after this, therefore because of this) is fallacious: it is just too hasty. We do infer (inductively, by generalization) kinds from instances, before inferring (deductively, syllogistically) instances from kinds – but we must always remain aware of possible exceptions (inductive evidence for particularization).

[7]           It would be erroneous to infer that every individual causative relation presupposes a universal one: the proposition “this X causes Y” seems superficially singular; but in practice, it means that the individual entity X always causes the kind of event Y (when it encounters some unstated kind of entity or circumstance, Z); for this reason, this singular form need not imply the broader “all X cause Y”. But that just confirms that truly ‘singular causation’ is a doubtful concept. At first sight, quantity is not the essential issue in causation; if a ‘universal’ (or kind) has but one instance, then its causation of something else might also be singular! But the issue is: how would we know about it? Are propositions of the form “if this singular event, then that other singular event; if not this singular event, then not that singular event” knowable? All we would have, surely, is an observation of the presence of this and that together, preceded and followed by an observation of the absence of both. Such conjunctions would not suffice to construct conditional propositions, which refer to negations of conjunctions! (For logicians, I would add: material implications are unknowable except through strict implications.)

[8]           For this reason, the argument “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” is often used with apparent legitimacy in the field of volition (as against causation). In such cases, the underlying logic is in fact adductive, rather than deductive. The singular cause is assumed hypothetically, so long as it seems to fit available data – though such judgment may be reversed if new data puts it in doubt.

[9]           The reader ought to read that book first, to fully understand the present work. At least, the summary chapters (10 and 16) should be looked at.

[10]          The negative aspect of this definition is as important as the positive, note well. David Hume’s reference to the “constant conjunction” between cause and effect is not by itself sufficient: absence of cause and absence of effect must also be found conjoined (in the strongest case). For a full critique of Hume’s views, see my Phenomenology, chapter II-5.

[11]          But see my The Logic of Causation for precise description of all possible cases. The strongest determination is complete-necessary causation. But in addition to that, there are weaker determinations, namely complete-contingent, partial-necessary, and partial-contingent causations. Volition can be fit into any one of these as a complete or partial cause, whether necessary or contingent.

[12]          In the case “if X, then Y”, we may consider ‘nature’ as expressed in the if–then connection between X and Y. In the case “if X1 and X2 etc., then Y”, the role of ‘nature’ is implied in both the other partial causes (X2, etc) and the connection.

[13]          See next chapter.

[14]          Contrary to the claims of philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle.

[15]          In terms of factorial analysis: “X causes Y” is the strongest factor of “X is followed by Y”, though we may have to downgrade in the face of new evidence. Symbolically: I ® An until if ever O appears. See my Future Logic, part VI. Contra Hume’s allegations, this principle is undeniable, since any such denial would perforce be making use of it.

[16]          We, of course, exist in a real world, with specific bounds and rules. Wishing something to be ‘so’ does not make it so; thinking otherwise is madness.

[17]          Note that the term ‘V’ can be replaced by the disjunction ‘V1 or V2 or V3...’ in cases of indirect volition where the effect varies according to unknown or unspecified surrounding factors, i.e. when the factors X, Y, Z… mentioned in the antecedent do not cover all possible causations.

[18]          Believers in Divine interference may distinguish between (a) miracles, or manifest interference, those rare cases when interference is specifically known to us (or thought to be), and (b) providence, or hidden interference, the presumed more frequent interference “behind the scenes”, i.e. without our specific knowledge (though note that the two words are sometimes intended more generically, one including the other or both the same). But even when God does not interfere, He retains the power to do so; so, in such cases, He exercises restraint. Note that Judaism celebrates both open and concealed Divine interference, respectively at the festivals Pessach (for instance – see book of Exodus) and at Purim (see book of Esther).

[19]          In any case, Al-Ghazali’s position is not the same as David Hume’s (1711-76), to whom he is often compared; the latter aims to deny all causality.

[20]          See chapter 10 there. Bold italics added here for emphasis.

[21]          Whence, it is concluded that some Divine intervention must have been necessary – to load the dice sufficiently, as it were. I am not competent to judge the mathematics involved; but if it is correct, the miraculous conclusion would seem justified, until and unless some more natural explanation is eventually proposed. See for instance Schroeder, or the much earlier Proceedings of the Associations of Orthodox Jewish Scientists.

[22]          There is no particular reason to expect God to intervene in a grandiose public manner in the course of nature. Rather, in my opinion, some sort of naturalist conclusion is to be expected and persistently sought.

[23]          See Curtis and Barnes, chapter 39.

[24]          It should be stressed that such attitudes are not peculiar to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but equally found in Hinduism and Buddhism. The latter religions, too, contain many beliefs that are out of step with modern science. One example (drawn from various texts): the belief that the earth and humanity have always existed, with sentient beings (in human or other form) going round and round the wheel of karma forever, and so forth. These religions, too, did not predict the Big Bang or Evolution.

[25]          Curtis and Barnes, p. 552.

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