Omni-instrumentality 4: Contrasting Views

This is the last of four posts on omni-instrumentality, a Thomistic model for divine providence. In the first three posts (here, here, and here) we outlined this model, the core of which is an account of divine concurrence as essential cooperation with nature. In this post we will be comparing our proposal with other views commonly held today — one of which is also from the Thomistic tradition — in the hopes that doing so will further clarify what we may have left unsaid thus far. As before, it is highly recommended that you read the previous posts before continuing here. Unless otherwise specified we will use divine concurrence to refer to God’s general concurrence, rather than the special concurrence we introduced at the end of the previous post.

Conservationism and occasionalism

While all the views we will be discussing below recognize some form of concurrence as playing a role in divine providence, others have rejected it outright. Concurrence is actually something of a middle-ground between the two extremes of conservationism and occasionalism.

Conservationism holds that God simply holds everything in existence without cooperating with their actions, even though he might still specially cooperate with them in particular circumstances. God’s activity of upholding everything in existence could be likened to the ultimate form of accidental cooperation, and any action he takes in ordering history would have to be by means of special accidental or coordinate cooperation on creatures. Conservationist models can differ from one another in how much control they propose God exerts over history, and at what cost this comes. The simple foreknowledge view, for instance, holds that God does not exert any control, but simply knows what will happen throughout history. Other views might say that he works within the confines of special concurrence, or even go so far as to say that he does violence to some of his creation in order to achieve his plans.

On the other side of the spectrum is occasionalism, which holds that creatures do not really act at all, but simply provide the occasion for God to act. The appearance of creatures acting is really an illusion, and there is no cooperation between God and creature at all, since the creature is not really involved in the act.

Concurrence is somewhere in the middle: it holds that God cooperates with creatures (contra occasionalism), but in such a way that he cooperates with the exercise of their powers (contra conservatism). But there are many forms of concurrence, corresponding to the different models of divine providence. Our aim here is not to defend concurrentism against conservationism or occasionalism — aside from the clarifications we’ve been making throughout the last three posts — but rather to delimit the extremes of the spectrum along which concurrentism exists.

Compatibilism

In the broadest possible sense, compatibilism is the view that God’s control is compatible with human freedom. In this sense, most views of divine providence would be considered compatibilist, even they not usually so called. Compatibilism is therefore typically used in a narrower sense, referring to the view that human freedom is compatible with some form of natural or causal determinism that precludes the possibility of alternative choice. We can see how this might work by looking at three examples of compatibilist models. Compatibilism comes in many shapes and sizes, so these are meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive.

First, there is Terrance Tiessen’s proposal, which posits a form of natural determinism based on what he calls the “principles of [creaturely] agent causation.”1 On this view, the very nature of creaturely agency — whereby we deliberate and choose as rational creatures — is governed by fundamental principles that are necessarily true, and which fix how agents of various kinds would choose in any given circumstance. Given that God (1) knows these principles of agency and (2) is able to ensure that agents are of the appropriate kind and in the relevant circumstances, he is able to govern history knowing that these determine how we will act.2 For Tiessen, an agent is free insofar as they are not externally coerced, and this is true when they are allowed to act in accordance with the principles of the kind of creaturely agent that they are.3

A second, and more radical, form of compatibilism is one that reduces human volition to deterministic laws of physics or chemistry. In this case, God could govern human choices simply by upholding these laws and knowing how they would impact the actions of humans. I don’t know of anyone who defends this sort of compatibilism today, and mention it more as a contrast to Tiessen’s proposal. The latter recognizes creaturely agency as an irreducible feature of reality, but posits that it follows its own kind of deterministic laws. In fact, Tiessen’s proposal is consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry being indeterministic, so long as the laws of creaturely agency are not.

Third, there is Paul Helseth’s proposal of omnicausality, which holds that God freely determines all that occurs in such a way that the real activity of second causes is upheld, so that he is not the sole cause of what happens and is not the source of evil.4 God determining all the occurs is understood as preventing agents from choosing other than they do, but upholds the “real activity of second causes” insofar as it works through the deliberating processes of agents rather than coercing them.5 This is a form of causal determinism rather than natural determinism, since it does not arise from the nature of agency or material existence (as in the first two versions), but from the causal action of God on his creatures. God’s act of directing history is understood quite differently on this view of compatibilism, since it is not based on his knowledge of how agents will act, but on his determining those agents to act in accordance with his will.

Perhaps the most notable difference between these views and our own is in how we understand voluntary freedom. While they differ in the details, each of these compatibilist models agree that a determinism that precludes the possibility of alternative choice is compatible with free choice. This is in stark contrast to the picture we outlined in the second post. Despite rejecting alternative possibilities as a universal condition of free choice, we nevertheless did admit that in the vast majority of cases it would be required. This follows from the nature of choice, which we said is the determination of an option for the achievement of an end that our will has determined to be worthy of pursuit. Since life often presents us with multiple options that equally good or incommensurable with one another, and since our ability to choose between options arises from our rational apprehension of them as options, it follows that we should be able to choose any of them in the absence of some overriding factors.6 From this perspective, then, these compatibilist models get the nature of free choice wrong.

Beyond this, Helseth’s omnicausality proposal has some striking similarities with our own. But there are differences, the most notable being that on our proposal divine concurrence does not remove alternative possibilities when it comes to choice. After all, we’ve been saying that God’s concurrence with us is what constitutes our natural powers and their exercise. Since some of our natural powers are volitional powers, and since these involve alternative possibilities, it follows that God’s concurrence constitutes the exercise of powers that allow for alternative possibilities. But at the same time, we’ve seen that his influence over the final product is direct, complete, and total, meaning that at the end of the day, the free choice of an agent will always be in accordance with God’s will. Now, of course, this is a very foreign notion, difficult to get one’s head around, for we have no experience of it in our everyday cooperation with artifice. (The closest we get to it is when playing with action figures or writing novels, in which case the freedom of the artificial characters piggybacks on our freedom as their authors.) This is why we need the analogy of cooperation, so that we can discuss these topics despite not having direct intuitive access to the subject matter.

What shall we say of our view, then? Is it compatibilist? Well, we hold that God determines the choice of agents, but without precluding alternative possibilities. So, yes and no. Some have labeled such a view hard compatibilism in contrast to the soft compatibilism we’ve been discussing up until now. As we saw at the beginning of this section, compatibilism admits of multiple senses, and we must be careful to clarify what exactly we claim is compatible and what we do not.

Molinism and Bañezianism

We move now to another important pair of views, Molinism and Bañezianism. These have their origin in a sixteenth-century debate between Jesuits and Dominicans, about how best to resolve certain problems surrounding God’s cooperation with creatures. Both the Jesuit Luis de Molina and the Dominican Domingo Bañez used Thomas Aquinas as something of a starting point in their discussions, although the former was happier to move beyond Aquinas where he saw fit. Thus, Bañezianism is classified as a Thomistic position, whereas Molinism is typically not.

Both Molina and Bañez start with certain model of concurrence, which leads to a problem that they each resolve in a different way. We discussed the core of this model, as explained by Freddoso, at the end of our second post. There we saw that it relied on an inadequate account of the difference between agent and instrument: the agent gives merely indeterminate (or non-specific) being to the final product, ensuring that it exists without specifying any details about this existence; and the instrument then gives determination (or specification) to this, filling in the details left out by the agent. Again, to quote Freddoso:

… 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.7 (emphasis added)

In the case of a choice, God ensures that a choice is made rather than not, but the creature determines the content of this choice. This leads us to the following problem: if God only gives indeterminate being when concurring with his creatures, then how can he guarantee the outcome of their actions, particularly the free choices of humans? Molina and Bañez took different approaches in answering this, which in some ways resemble the different approaches of Tiessen and Helseth we saw above. But whereas Tiessen and Helseth are both compatibilists, Molina and Bañez both sought to uphold the possibility of alternative choice.

Molina posited that God has a special kind of knowledge, called “middle knowledge”, which he uses to ensure that humans choose in accordance with his plans.8 By means of this knowledge God knows the so-called “counterfactuals of creaturely freedom”, which specify how each human would freely act were they put in each hypothetical circumstance. While most agree that God knows these counterfactuals, Molina’s proposal posits that this knowledge is both contingent and not decided by God. Thus, it is logically in the middle between God’s natural knowledge (which is necessary and not decided by God) and God’s free knowledge (which is contingent and decided by God). Because the truth of these counterfactuals is contingent, we can distinguish the ways an agent could choose from the ways they would choose given the current set of counterfactuals. And because God does not decide which counterfactuals are true, we are not in danger of falling into causal determinism.9 Using this middle knowledge, then, God is able to ensure that humans freely choose in accordance with his plan by ensuring that they find themselves in the appropriate circumstances.

Type Modality Control
Natural knowledge Necessary Not decided by God
Middle knowledge Contingent Not decided by God
Free knowledge Contingent Decided by God

Bañez took a causal approach rather than a knowledge-based one. In addition to giving indeterminate being to the choice, he posited that prior to this God pre-moves the agent from potentially choosing to actually choosing something.10 This so-called “physical premotion” is not like the Aristotelian premotion we discussed in the previous post, since it is an action performed on the agent’s will directly rather than externally through the circumstances of the choice. By means of this act God exercises control over the particulars of the choice that the agent is pre-moved to make, despite only indeterminately upholding the choice while it occurs. On the face of it, such premotion would seem to exclude the possibility of alternative choice, but Bañez assures us that this is not the case, which he explains by means of a distinction. The will is capable of choosing contrary to the premotion when considered simply and in a divided sense, but considered in a composite sense it cannot. What he seems to mean by this is that when the will is considered in isolation (divided) from the premotion, then it has within itself the capability to choose between alternatives. (This is presumably why God can pre-move it to choose any of these alternatives without doing violence to it.) But when the will is considered together (composed) with the premotion, then it can only choose in accordance with that premotion. For Bañez, only the former sense is important when considering the possibility of alternative choice, but I must admit that I struggle to see how this does not in the end amount to a case of causal determinism.

We have already explained why we find the model of concurrence shared by Molina and Bañez to be problematic, but it would be informative to compare the two resulting views to our own. When it comes to relationship between God and evil, Molinism and Bañezianism seem to fall into two opposite extremes. In excluding the details of the choice from God’s influence, Molinism successfully manages to avoid making him the author of evil, but also avoids making him the sole source of goodness, since these details will include both of these elements. And in making all the details of the choice arise from the same premotion, Bañezianism cannot distinguish the evil elements from the good, and so if forced to say that God is equally the source of both, or that the premotion makes him the source of neither. Our proposal allows us to decompose the components of the contribution, and we’ve seen how God is the source of all goodness, while we are the sole authors of evil by virtue of our privative limitation of his influence.

The Bañezian view is similar to our own insofar as it seeks to place concurrence at the center of an account of providence, but the differences between the two are important. The introduction of physical premotion into the picture seems to make two acts where we have one. And insofar physical premotion is an act on the human will, it amounts to a rejection of the first corollary we drew in our second post. These two points suggest that Bañezian concurrence should be understood not in terms of essential cooperation, but rather in terms of coordinate cooperation coinciding with accidental cooperation. God coordinately cooperates with the agent by moving their will to choose, and accidentally cooperates with them by indeterminately sustaining the choice in existence. It’s the coordinate cooperation, wherein God acts on the will, that restricts the will from choosing otherwise. In holding instead that God acts through the will, as part of his essential cooperation with it, we avoid the need for this restriction.

Conclusion

This brings an end to our posts on divine providence. In the course of these, we have discussed cooperation, nature and artifice, and will and choice. We have introduced the analogy of cooperation, and with it been able to study some of the consequences of God’s essential cooperation with nature. We have considered how divine providence must incorporate creaturely limitations, including those limitations from whence evil arises, and briefly mentioned how special concurrence can be used to overcome some of these. Altogether, this makes up our view, which we have called omni-instrumentality because of the relationship between essential cooperation and instrumentation. Finally, in this post, we have compared our view with others commonly held today.

Reflecting on all of this, it strikes me that any view on divine providence must ultimately recognize some form of mystery. Compatibilism asks us to reject our commonsense notion of freedom; Molinism asks us to accept this special class of contingent facts that God doesn’t decide; Bañezianism asks us to qualify the principle of alternative possibilities to the capacity of the will rather than its exercise; and our own omni-instrumentality asks us to accept that the exact nature of God’s concurrence is beyond our intuitive grasp.

The presence of mystery should not be considered a failure, for divine providence is a very unique and alien feature of reality. The inevitability of mystery should not dissuade us from studying divine providence, for much can be gained within the bounds it sets for us. And the way each view deals with mystery should not be the sole factor we consider when evaluating it, but it is an interesting one.

How we deal with this mystery is up to us: we may downplay it, punt to it when questions get tough, bite the bullet, or something else. Our own approach has been to work with it in as systematic a way as we can manage, by building an analogical bridge between our cooperation with artifice and God’s cooperation with nature. This affords us a mechanism for reasoning about divine providence without needing to be able to peer behind the curtain and see all the details.


  1. A brief outline of his view can be found here with an expanded discussion of some points here. A more focused discussion on his view on the principles of agent causation can be found here.↩︎
  2. I must admit that I do not see the value of introducing the category of principles of agent causation, for it seems to me that the “kind” of agent a particular person is can simply be included in the specification of the circumstance. In this case, we could say that the agents are determined in their choices by the circumstances, because these circumstances fully determine the inputs of the deterministic deliberation process that governs creaturely reasoning. Perhaps this just is what Tiessen is proposing.↩︎
  3. As he says here, “In regard to my own model of providence, Craig would be incorrect to complain that whether or not a person accepts the arguments for determinism is ‘wholly . . . determined by causal factors outside himself’… An essential contention of the soft-compatibilistic account of freedom is that the crucial determining factors are internal. Moral responsibility derives from the fact that a person is not coerced to the action. Although he could not have done otherwise, being who he is and all the circumstances of the situation being what they were, the person acted freely, that is, voluntarily or without external coercion.” We’ve noted before that compatibilists do not typically hold the compatibility of determinism and freedom in any case, but only when the relevant choice is non-constrained.↩︎
  4. See his contribution in Four Views on Divine Providence (Amazon). Terrance Tiessen has summarized the chapter, as well as the responses from William Lane Craig, and Ron Highfield and Gregory Boyd.↩︎
  5. As far as I am aware, Helseth never outright states this, but it is clear from how he responds to objections and counter-proposals. Toward the end of his contribution in the book, he rejects libertarian freedom and the “power to do otherwise.” And near the end of his response to William Lane Craig’s contribution, he rejects the notion the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:8) were using their libertarian freedom “in one way and not the other.”↩︎
  6. A common objection raised against libertarian free will is the alternative possibilities render a choice inexplicable. However, this only follows if we assume that explanations need to entail what they explain, which seems false. I have discussed how I think libertarian choices can be explained with non-entailing explanations here and in section 1 here. These are basically simplified forms of a proposal from Alexander Pruss, which he discusses in section 4 of his Divine Creative Freedom.↩︎
  7. Alfred Freddoso, “God’s General Concurrence With Secondary Causes: Pitfalls and Prospects”.↩︎
  8. We have discussed middle knowledge before.↩︎
  9. The primary differences between this and Tiessen’s compatibilist proposal, then, are that (1) these counterfactuals can be different for different individuals, whereas for Tiessen they differ according to types of individuals, and (2) these counterfactuals are part of God’s middle knowledge, whereas for Tiessen they are part of his natural knowledge.↩︎
  10. See David Svoboda’s “Physical Premotion and Human Freedom” for a succinct discussion of physical premotion, as well as the attempts of Bañez and Ludwig Babenstuber at securing freedom of the will in the face of physical premotion.↩︎

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