This is the second of four posts on omni-instrumentality, a Thomistic model for divine providence. The central piece of this model is an account of divine concurrence in terms of “essential cooperation with nature”. In the first post we discussed cooperation in general and essential cooperation in particular. In this post we will complete our discussion of concurrence, unpacking what it means for essential cooperation to be with nature. In the next post we will flesh this out into a fuller picture of divine providence as a whole, before we compare our model to others in the fourth post. It is highly recommended that you read the first post before continuing here, since space does not allow us to retread any ground.
Nature, artifice, and coincidence
Loosely speaking, a nature is the specification of what something is, such that we can speak of the nature of a cat, an abacus, and a pile of rocks. Strictly speaking, however, the nature of a thing is an intrinsic source of change and stability, whereby it acts and behaves in the course of its existence. A living thing, for instance, will grow and exercise its various powers in the course of the activity of its life. A thing’s nature is what gives it the foundational powers it has, all other powers being made up of a combination of these in some way.
Of the three examples we listed, only the cat has a nature in this strict sense, and it is on account this that we say that a cat is a “natural” thing. Because a nature is intrinsic to a natural thing, and because it is the source of that thing’s powers, an indicator that something is natural is that it has powers that do not arise entirely from its parts or are imposed upon it from outside. In the case of the cat, this is evident from the fact that a cat is capable of doing things that its corpse is not, which means that the powers the cat has are not reducible to the sum of the powers of its parts. Rather, the cat’s powers must be a consequence of the organization of its parts brought about by the intrinsic activity whereby it lives and acts.
The abacus and the pile of rocks represent two ways a thing might be non-natural, and in each case this is indicated by its powers arising from something extrinsic. Any power that the pile of rocks has is just the sum of powers of the individual rocks in the pile. Such powers are extrinsic to the pile because they do not arise at the level of the pile itself, but at a lower level of its parts. Because the pile is the result of its parts coinciding, we say that it is a “coincidental” thing. By contrast, the powers of the abacus that enable it to calculate are neither intrinsic to the whole nor to its parts, but arise from the meaning and functions we collectively imbue into them by convention. Since these arise from outside, such powers are extrinsic to the abacus, but this time because they are added over and above it. Because these powers ultimately arise from us, we say that it is an “artificial” thing, or simply an “artifact”.
Now, two factors make it difficult to talk about artifacts precisely. First, we do not typically distinguish the underlying thing from the meaning or functions we add to it. In the case of the abacus, there is the artificial calculating machine as well as the underlying coincidental thing made up of pieces of wood. This coincidental thing is what is left of the abacus when we remove our conventions from the picture, but because we interact with artifacts through the lens of our conventions, we rarely (if ever) have the underlying thing in mind. Similarly with a sword (artifact) and the coincidental thing made up of steel and wood (underlying thing). Conversely, we sometimes refer to the artifact using the name of the underlying thing, as when we call our “writing implement” a “piece of chalk”, or when we call a “drinking cup” a “glass”.
Second, there are two senses in which something can be artificial. On the one hand there is artifice in fieri, which has to do with us causing a thing to come into existence for a particular purpose. On the other hand there is artifice in esse, which has to do with us causing the continual being of a thing by means of our intentions, conventions, and usages. This distinction is important, because something can be artificial in fieri but natural in esse, as when we synthesize water from hydrogen and oxygen in a laboratory. Something can also be natural in fieri but artificial in esse, as when we use a rock as a chair. And of course, something can be artificial in both senses, as when we build a wooden chair. In our discussion here, we are only concerned with artifice in esse, and will put artifice in fieri to one side.
Voluntary and free
Some natural powers are voluntary, which means that they are exercised in making decisions by means of a will informed by an intellect. All the natural powers arise from the thing itself, but voluntary powers do so in the fullest sense, since their exercise involves someone making a conscious decision to act in a way that they understand and desire. Sometimes the term “natural” is used in contrast to “voluntary”, but in the sense we’re using the term every voluntary power is a natural power.1
Voluntary powers feature prominently in discussions on divine providence, since it’s difficult to see how God could direct all of history without undermining our free will. Now, freedom is what something has when it is not constrained, where the meaning of “constrained” is determined by that thing’s nature.2 A horse is less free if it cannot gallop or eat, but it is no less free if it cannot fly. Unlike flying, galloping and eating are part of the horse’s nature, and so it is to the extent that these are impeded that the horse’s freedom is infringed.
In order to understand what it is for a will to be free, then, we must first say what a will is. Fundamentally, our will is the voluntary power that enables us to consciously pursue the good, and is therefore sometimes referred to as our “rational appetite”. Here, “the good” is meant in the broad sense of that which is worthy of pursuit, rather than the more restrictive moral sense. Ice-creams and movies can be good, as well as humans.3 Given that this is what a will is, our will is free to the extent that it properly orders us to that which is most truly good, which is to say most worthy of pursuit. Our free will is infringed, then, to the extent that we are prevented from this, either by ignorance of what is truly worth pursuing or by weakness of our desire for it.
We sometimes treat free will and free choice interchangeably, but strictly speaking they are distinct. Choice is our voluntary power to deliberate between alternatives and decide which of them to pursue. This occurs when our will determines that some end is desirable, and our intellect determines that there are multiple options for achieving it. In this case, we must make a choice between the alternatives in order to proceed. Now, the particulars of the end and the means will constrain which options are available for us to choose between, but more often than not there will still be multiple options to choose between. For example, the modes of transport available to me and the structure of the road networks constrain the options I have for traveling to church every Sunday, but even this leaves me with a number of options for routes, some of which are more scenic and others of which are more efficient. Because these constraints arise from the nature of the choice being made, they are better thought of as the parameters of the choice than as infringements upon my freedom. What would infringe upon my freedom would be any constraints imposed upon me beyond the parameters of the choice, such as roadworks that preclude one of my options, or someone else forcing me to choose one of the options. Freedom of choice can also be infringed by ignorance of what is truly a good means to achieving a particular end, which may result in an incorrect evaluation of the alternatives.
Freedom is sometimes thought to depend on the so-called “principle of alternate possibilities”, which says that our will is only free if we could have chosen otherwise. Given the distinction between will and choice, we can nuance this and determine the extent to which this principle is true. We said that the will is what orders us to some end worthy of pursuit. Thus, if there were only one end worthy of pursuit, then our will would be no less free if it were the only thing we desired. In fact, in this case it would infringe our freedom of we desired anything else. If this sounds strange, that’s probably because in the vast majority of cases there are multiple ends worthy of our pursuit, which are all equally good or incommensurable with one another. But it’s precisely this that differs in the edge case we mentioned.4 Thus, in the case of free will we should treat the principle of alternative possibilities as a good rule of thumb, but not a universally true principle. On the other hand, we said that free choice is about ability to deliberate between options for achieving an end we desire by our will. In this case, we might not be able to choose otherwise because (1) there is only one valid option for achieving the end or (2) there are multiple options but we are prevented from choosing some of them. In the first case we don’t have free choice because we don’t have choice at all, and so it would be better to say that in such case choice is precluded rather than say that the freedom of choice is infringed. In the second case, we do have a choice but our freedom is infringed. Thus, even with choice, applying the principle of alternative possibilities needs to be done with care.
Now, it is tempting to think that voluntary powers are uniquely problematic for divine providence, and much of the discussion on the topic focuses on how God could direct history without frustrating our voluntary freedom. But once we appreciate the distinction between nature and non-nature, it becomes clear that the real problem lies with natural powers in general. After all, natural powers are supposed to be intrinsic to things, but God is something extrinsic. How, then, can God’s cooperation with creaturely actions be anything other than something distant? And if he must “step in” to achieve his plans, then how does he avoid frustrating our natures by constraining the exercise of our intrinsic powers?
Analogy of cooperation
We must frankly admit that we cannot eliminate all mystery when it comes to divine providence, since it is unlike anything we experience in daily life. This notwithstanding, we can get at it indirectly by constructing an analogy between what happens in divine providence and things we understand more intuitively.5 This “analogy of cooperation” allows us to draw principled conclusions amidst unavoidable mystery.
In everyday experience, we are familiar with the causation of the continual being of artificial things. A musical performance is a good example of this, as well as a sports match or dance routine. There are also simpler cases where we use an object, as in the Alice-and-stick example we discussed in the previous post. In fact, when we discussed levels of cooperation we stumbled upon something resembling what we’ve said about artifacts: while Alice uses the stick to prod the stone, she produces something artificial (the prodder) out of something that is natural (the underlying stick) by imbuing it with a particular purpose and function. Alice’s continued usage sustains the artifact in existence, and when she stops using it like this it ceases to exist, leaving only the underlying stick behind.6
The doctrine of creation is our departure point when it comes to fleshing out God’s side of the analogy. We can arrive at this doctrine through scripture and philosophical argumentation, and our aim here is not to defend it but to draw out its consequences. In particular, it encodes a fundamental difference between us and God: we cause the being of artificial things, but as creator God causes the being of all natural things.
Now, causing the being of something is not simply about causing it to come into existence. The doctrine of creation is not only concerned with the beginning of creation, but also about our continual dependence upon God for our moment-to-moment being. We do not magically become independent of God once we come into existence, but continue depending on him as a musical piece depends for its continued existence on the musician playing it, or the prodder depends on Alice to continually direct the stone. Thus Paul, when reflecting on God being the creator of everything, approvingly quotes the statement that, “in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)7
In order to connect this with cooperation, we need to realize that a thing’s being is both (1) that by which it exists and (2) that in which it acts.8 To see this in action, consider a sports team. It exists by virtue of a group of people engaging in the characteristic activity of such a team, which will include training, gathering equipment, and playing matches. This one activity, which includes all the various sub-activities, constitutes the team in existence, and any action the team engages in will be part of it. Thus, this activity is the being of the team. The same sort of thing occurs with living things: all their actions are part of the activity of their life, which is also what sustains them in existence. The same also goes for natural non-living things as well, although it can be a bit more difficult to identify what exactly this activity involves.
The tendency to treat a thing’s existence as disconnected from its actions might be a consequence of our ability to conceptualize them as distinct. But we must bear in mind that we can conceptualize things as distinct even when they are not, as when we distinguish Superman from Clark Kent, or a downhill from an uphill. In the present case, we can abstract away the details of a thing’s being, leaving only an indeterminate (or non-specific) concept behind, corresponding merely to the fact of its existence.9 Alternatively, we can focus on just this or that part or time-slice of a thing’s being, which would correspond to a particular action or sub-activity involved in that being. But this conceptual distinction should not be confused for a real distinction in the thing itself. Really, there is one activity of being that is grounding the thing’s existence and involving the thing’s actions, and we are merely pulling it apart conceptually by considering it from different perspectives. In similar fashion, we can conceptualize something being red separately from it being a particular kind of red (like scarlet or crimson), even though nothing is ever red without also being a particular kind of red. And we can focus on a sports team’s sub-activity of training, or a particular match, without thinking about their overarching activity of being a team, even though the former are parts of the latter.
Now, if a thing’s being is that in which it acts, and something else continually causes its being, then that cause will necessarily also cooperate with its actions. When Alice sustains the prodder’s being, for instance, this occurs by means of the same activity by which the prodder acts to move the stone. And this just is the activity wherein she moves the prodder to move the stone, considered from a different perspective. Likewise, when God sustains the being of natural things, he cooperates with the actions that flow from the use of their natural powers. The exercise of their powers is, from another perspective, God’s working through them to act for the ends that they do. Stated as a proportion: we are to our cooperation with artifacts, as God is to his cooperation with nature. This is the analogy of cooperation, which bridges our typical experience of cooperation and the unique kind of cooperation that God engages in as the Creator of everything. In it, the mystery of divine concurrence is reduced to the mystery of creation, and we are enabled to reason about it using the kinds of cooperation we grasp more intuitively.
Essential cooperation with nature
But which mode of cooperation is at play in the analogy of cooperation? For two reasons we can see that it must be essential cooperation.
First, both coordinate and accidental cooperation would admit some measure of independence on the side of the creature, which is at odds with the absolute dependence all creation has upon the Creator. It is usual for these modes of cooperation to obtain between things within creation, since individual creatures are independent from one another at a fundamental level. But apart from the continual work of the Creator God nothing would exist at all, meaning that any activity arising from a creature must be a propagation of what first originated with the Creator.
Second, since a thing’s being is that in which it acts, the source of its continual being must cooperate directly with those actions, which implies that the cooperation must involve combination. And since a thing’s being also grounds the fact of its existence, it is also dependent upon this source for everything, which implies that the cooperation must involve dependency. And since a thing’s being arises from a single act from its source, we have a case of combination with dependence, which is essential cooperation.
So, divine concurrence is essential cooperation with nature. By causing the continual being of natural things, God causes our causing the things that we do in the course of our natural existence. This applies to all natural things and the actions that flow from their natural powers, including the voluntary powers by which we will the good and choose between alternatives. But in arriving at the statement of our proposal we are only half way through the journey, for we are prone to misunderstand what it does and does not imply. For the remainder of this post we will clarify it, drawing out two important corollaries and considering an interesting case study.
The first corollary is that when God essentially cooperates with us he does not act on us, but through us. Acting on something requires that it exist in some sense prior to the acting, but there is nothing of us prior to God’s cooperation with us, since it is by this cooperation that we are constituted. The analogy of cooperation helps us connect this with more familiar examples. In essential cooperation with artifice, there are three things to consider: the agent (Alice), the artifact (prodder), and the underlying thing (stick); the agent acts on the underlying thing in order to establish and sustain the artifact through which they are acting. Put solely in terms of cooperation, the agent cooperates with the artifact at the higher level by means of a separate and lower-level cooperation with the underlying thing. Now, the notion that God acts on us can be seen as an incorrect assignment of analogues when transposing from artifice to nature: we think the creature is analogous the underlying thing, but really it analogous to the artifact. If anything, God acts “on” the constitutive principles of our natures — such as prime matter and essence — and it is these principles that are the proper analogue to the stick. Nor does he act on our material parts, for these must also be constituted by his cooperation.10
A consequence of this is that divine concurrence does not impose violence against our natural powers, but rather that their exercise consists in God’s acting through us. This is true for all natural powers, and in particular voluntary powers. We mentioned in the previous post that essential cooperation can sometimes occur by means of violence at a lower level, and so if we were analogous to the underlying thing then God might have to impose violence against us in order to get his way. This would certainly go contrary to freedom. But since we are actually analogous to the artifact, divine concurrence constitutes rather than constrains our actions. God does not need to constrain creatures in order to ensure that we will act in accordance with this will, but acts through the exercise of our natural powers.
The second corollary is that the influences of both God and creature on the final product are direct (or immediate), complete, and total, but according to different modes. That is, they both extend to the final product (direct/immediate), to all of the final product (complete), and to every detail of the final product (total), but not in the same way (different modes). It’s because they contribute according to different modes that both God and creature can influence the effect without rendering the other superfluous. We can see this at work by returning again to essential cooperation with artifice. When Alice moves the stone with the prodder, both Alice and the prodder cause the motion of the stone. The prodder causes the stone to move by means of propagating the motion given to it by Alice, while Alice moves the stone through the prodder by causing its causing the stone to move. This caused causing directly involves Alice in the production the stone’s movement as an agent who applies an instrument to its end. It’s this difference between agent and instrument that enables both to contribute without superfluity. If this were accidental cooperation, Alice would cause the stick’s motion without applying it to the stone, and her influence would not extend all the way to the final product. But in essential cooperation both the prodder and Alice cause one and the same effect in different ways, as instrument and agent, the difference arising from the difference between causing and causing causing.
Of course, we know that this essential cooperation with Alice and the stick occurs by means of a coordinate cooperation at a lower level. Because of this there will always be some distance between Alice and the stone, requiring us to qualify the sense in which she directly influences it: she is directly involved in regard to her application of the prodder as an instrument to the stone (higher-level cooperation), but is indirectly involved in regard to her physical distance from it (lower-level cooperation). This lower-level distance is lost when we transpose all of this over to God’s essential cooperation with nature, since he is not limited in his power as we are, and so never works through an independent thing in his cooperation with us. This is perhaps the most notable difference between human instruments (artificial things) and divine instruments (natural things).
Now, some might feel uneasy about the application of these corollaries to divine concurrence, saying that the power of choice is fundamentally different to what we have in the prodder case. It is absolutely right that the cases differ, but not in a way that undermines what we’ve said. The prodder differs from free choice in that the former is an artificial thing whereas the latter is a natural power; but in both case we are drawing on a feature of essential cooperation as such, rather than something peculiar to essential cooperation with artifice. Thus, the difference is not salient. Free choice occurs by means of us exercising our natural powers, and just like the exercise of any natural power it consists in God working through us to bring about a final product directly, completely, and totally, as the divine agent of his natural instruments. Both corollaries are important, and ignoring either will prevent us from fully appreciating the other.
Case study: Freddoso’s indeterminate being
Alfred Freddoso has discussed a model of concurrence that is shared between two popular views on divine providence today, namely Molinism and Bañezianism.11 This model illustrates the importance of the agent-instrument distinction to both of these views, but is also problematic in that it relies on an inadequate account of this distinction. We have said that this difference lies in the difference between causing and causing causing, but the common position discussed by Freddoso seeks it elsewhere. On the latter position, the agent gives merely indeterminate (or non-specific) being to the final product, ensuring only that it exists, without specifying any details about this existence; and the instrument then gives determination (or further specification) to this, filling in the details left out by the agent. Freddoso illustrates the this as follows:
… one and the same effect — say, our newly conceived armadillo — is from God insofar as it exists at all, i.e., insofar as it is something rather than nothing, and from its parents insofar as its being is determinate, i.e., insofar as it is an animal of the species armadillo. In short, the effect is undivided and yet such that both its universal or general cause (God) and its particular causes (the parents) contribute to its production in distinctive and non-redundant modes.12 (emphasis added)
It is clear from the context of this quote that these two contributions are intended to be immediate to the effect. Thus, God influences the armadillo directly and completely, but not totally. Given this, the proposal seems to be a variation of the mistake we discussed earlier, namely confusing a distinction in our conceptions for a distinction in reality. A living thing doesn’t have being apart from the activity of its specific kind of life any more than something is red apart from being a specific kind of red. The armadillo exists by living as a specific kind of animal, and any distinction between these is merely a result of us conceptualizing its life at different levels of generality.
It is true that God creates all being while the parents of the armadillo are only able to beget a child of the same nature.13 And since God cooperates with nature in everything that it does, if we abstract away the details of each instance of divine concurrence, then the contribution from God that is common across all of them will be indeterminate being. But it would be wrong to infer from this that God actually gives indeterminate being in each case. This would be like abstracting the details of each instance of Bob using one of his tools (screwdriver, saw, hammer, etc.), leaving us with an indeterminate motion as his common contribution, and inferring from this that what he actually gives in each case is merely indeterminate motion. Really, in each case he gives specific and directed motion, and the indeterminacy is just a feature of our thinking about his activity.
Now, Freddoso is not unaware of this objection, and it is worth considering one of the examples he gives in his response:14
Suppose… I use a piece of blue chalk to draw a square on the blackboard. It seems clear that both the chalk and I count as joint immediate causes of a single effect, viz., the blue square-shaped line that appears on the surface of the blackboard. Yet the fact that the line is blue, rather than some other color, is traced back primarily to the causal properties of the chalk as an immediate instrumental cause of the blue square rather than to any of my properties as an immediate principal cause of the blue square. By the same token, the fact that there is a square-shaped effect — rather than, say, a circular effect or no effect at all — is traced back primarily to my influence as an immediate principal cause and not to the chalk’s as an instrumental cause.
Key aspects of this picture are correct: the shape and color of the effect are indeed primarily traced back to the different causes in the cooperation, and both the agent and the chalk are indeed immediate causes of the effect. However, it is not the case that each cause is only the immediate cause of the feature that is primarily traced back to it. The directed chalk is the immediately responsible for the shape just as it is for the color, as the implement in direct contact with the board that produces the colored shape by its motion. And the agent is immediately responsible for the color just as they are the shape, as someone who intentionally applies the blue chalk as an instrument to drawing the square.15 The real difference between agent and instrument is not to be found in the difference between indeterminate being and its determination, but in the difference between causing causing and causing. The chalk, of itself, is incapable of realizing its capacity for producing the square shape, so the agent applies it as an instrument to this end, causing its causing of the shape on the board. The result is two causes, both immediate, complete, and total, but in different ways, one as agent and the other as instrument.
In fact, there is an important sense in which Freddoso’s picture is incomplete, for it makes no distinction between the artificial instrument and the underlying thing. The piece of chalk is better thought of as the underlying thing, and the resulting writing implement as the artificial thing. The agent acts on the chalk, but through the writing implement, to produce the square shape. The cooperation with the writing implement is essential, resulting from the directed motion from the agent through the implement to produce the colored shape. It is at this higher-level that both instrument and agent are responsible for the colored shape, but in different ways.
At a lower-level, various cooperations with the chalk will be coordinate or accidental depending on which final product we consider. If it’s a particular motion of the chalk that overrides its inertia, or if it’s the pressure in the chalk upon pushing it into the board, then the cooperation will be coordinate. On the other hand, if the final product is the impression of the chalk on the board so as to leave chalk residue, then the cooperation is accidental; and in this case we have something like the indeterminacy that Freddoso mentions in the above quote. In this cooperation the agent merely provides the pressure to the chalk, which the chalk in turn uses the make an impression on the board of a particular color. But this is not the relevant cooperation when considering divine concurrence.
In this post we built upon the foundation of the first. The distinction between nature and artifice allowed us to see the fundamental difference between the kinds of cooperation we’re familiar with and the kind of cooperation involved in divine concurrence. With the analogy of cooperation we were able to bridge the gap between these two, and we used it to outline our proposal for divine concurrence as well as draw out important corollaries of this proposal. But our task is not done, for there are other notions within the vicinity that need to be discussed before we can fully appreciate our proposal that divine concurrence is essential cooperation with nature. We will discuss these in the next post.
- See, for instance, Aquinas’s discussion in ST I Q83 A1, particularly corp and ad3.↩︎
- Our distinction between will and choice follows that of Sebastian Walshe, in his “Predestination: Some Questions and Misconceptions”, questions 2 and 3.↩︎
- Moral goodness is subset of the ways humans can be good, insofar as we voluntarily pursue that which is worth pursuing.↩︎
- Out of interest, this is why the impossibility of sinning in heaven does not go contrary to our freedom of will. Sinning is never a good thing, and those who are resurrected in heaven have their will perfectly orientated toward God so that sin never occurs to them as a valid option.↩︎
- Analogy, here, is used in the technical Thomistic sense rather than the looser “extended metaphor” sense it sometimes has in English. In particular, the analogy will be an analogy of proper proportion, which corresponds to the mathematical notion of isomorphism.↩︎
- We focus on examples where the artificial thing exists by our continued active engagement, because they help us see things more clearly than the comparatively passive cases of our collective conventions or typical usages. Of course, such passive cases are still active insofar as holding onto conventions and understanding typical usages are activities, but these activities are less connected with the resulting artificial things.↩︎
- I have outlined the philosophical reasons for thinking this in my post “Potentiality and Inertia”.↩︎
- The point expressed in this paragraph is inspired by McArthur’s “Universal in praedicando, universal in causando”.↩︎
- David Oderberg’s “Finality Revisited” is an in-depth discussion on the sort of indeterminacy we see here, and what makes the indeterminacy of abstraction unique from other kinds.↩︎
- See my posts “Form vs structure, and what it means for virtual existence” and “God, matter, and necessary existence” for a discussion of the constitutive principles I have in mind (form, matter, and essence), there relations to one another, and to things such as parts and structure.↩︎
- Alfred Freddoso, “God’s General Concurrence With Secondary Causes: Pitfalls and Prospects”*.↩︎
- Alfred Freddoso, “God’s General Concurrence With Secondary Causes: Pitfalls and Prospects”*.↩︎
- Of course, the picture is complicated by evolutionary biology, but not so as to undermine the point being made here — only as to call for more nuance that would take us too far afield of our present discussion.↩︎
- He discusses other examples of cooperation where different causes are primarily responsible for different aspects of the final product, but each of these is an example of coordinate cooperation and thus has little relevance to the essential cooperation that obtains between God and creatures in his concurrence with them.↩︎
- In a footnote (n26) Freddoso considers the possibility that the agent could have chosen a different color a chalk, and rejects it as irrelevant. Our point, however, is about the act of the agent in the drawing of the shape, not their choices prior to drawing the shape.↩︎