Potentiality from first principles

In his gigantic post on existential inertia (section 7.13), Joe Schmid gives an argument against the act-potency distinction which can be roughly summarized as follows: the act-potency distinction commits us to pluralism about being, but pluralism about being is false, therefore we should reject the act-potency distinction. I had not heard of pluralism about being before, but Schmid quotes Merricks (a recent critic of the view) giving the following general idea:

Monism about being (monism for short) says that everything enjoys the same way of being. So monism implies, for example, that if there are pure sets and if there are mountains, then pure sets exist in just the way that mountains do. Monism can be contrasted with pluralism about being (pluralism for short). Pluralism says that some entities enjoy one way of being but others enjoy another way, or other ways, of being.[1]

Schmid’s ultimate target is the Thomistic view of existence as articulated by Aquinas in On Being and Essence, but he gets at it through the more general act-potency distinction. On the Thomistic view, God and creatures exist in different ways, since in creatures there is a real distinction between essence and being (essence is in potency to the act of being), whereas in God there is no such distinction—he is being itself, pure act. While this is true so far as it goes, it is not obvious that the “ways of being” in the Thomistic sense corresponds to the “ways of being” in Merrick’s sense, and my aim here is to show that it in fact does not.

Schmid’s argument

Now, I’ll admit that the overall structure of Schmid’s argument is somewhat confusing to me. He actually takes aim at something he calls act-potency pluralism—the view that there are two ways of being (in Merrick’s sense), namely being-in-potency and being-in-act. His discussion ends once he establishes the conclusion that we should not accept act-potency pluralism, but he doesn’t show that the Thomistic view of existence commits us to such a view in the first place.[2] As best I can tell, he assumes that the Thomistic view of existence requires the act-potency distinction and that the act-potency distinction entails (or is equivalent to) act-potency pluralism.[3] Thus, an argument against act-potency pluralism amounts to an argument against the Thomistic view of existence. On the contrary, I do not think the act-potency distinction commits us to act-potency pluralism, and that therefore the conclusion of Schmid’s argument is irrelevant to the Thomistic view of existence.

In order to show this, we must clarify what pluralism means when it speaks of “different ways of being”. If we look at premises (18) and (19) in Schmid’s argument, we can see what he takes to be the salient feature of pluralism that makes it problematic:

18. Act-potency pluralists should not accept generic existence.

19. If act-potency pluralists do not accept generic existence, then they cannot—by their own lights—state that everything is thus and so.

To “generically exist” means “to exist, or to have being, or to be something”.[4] This is the only sort of existence the monist thinks there is, while the pluralist could in principle accept that there is this sort of existence in addition to others. Nevertheless, as Schmid points out when defending (18), the motivations for pluralism militate against the acceptance of generic existence. This is all the more true of the Thomistic understanding of act and potency, since we take this distinction to be exhaustive.

This brings us to (19). If there is no generic being alongside being-in-potency and being-in-act, then there is no X such that we can say simply that everything is X, since everything a thing is is in virtue of its being, and there is no way of being that applies to everything. At best we can say something is(-in-potency) X or is(-in-act) X. As Schmid’s argument goes on to say, this is a problem for act-potency pluralism because it is the position about what everything simply is, and is therefore self-undercutting (see his post for more detail).

This implication of pluralism helps us to better understand what it means for there to be different “ways of being” in Merrick’s sense. If being is divided in this way, then there is no sense in which a thing simply is anything because there is no sense in which a thing can simply be anything—it must either be-in-potency or be-in-act.

The thing is, this isn’t how Thomists understand the act-potency distinction. For us, act just is the generic being, in virtue of which everything exists. Potency, or more specifically potentiality (a difference we’ll unpack later), is not strictly speaking being or a way of being, but something else. But, we may wonder, what could it be if not some other way of being? There are two answers we can give, which we’ll introduce each separately before showing that they are in fact equivalent.

Potentiality as relative nonbeing

The first account arises in response to the problem of the one and the many, motivated by Parmenides’ against multiplicity.[5] In order for one thing to be distinct from another, it needs to have some differentiating feature that the other doesn’t. On the one hand, it can’t be being, since this is something that both things already have. On the other, it can’t be nonbeing, since nonbeing is nothing and if nothing differentiates the things then they are not differentiated. For Parmenides, the conclusion we should draw from this is something we could call “Parmenidean collapse”—that there is no multiplicity of being, all is one and any diversity in being is merely an illusion.

But surely our experience of multiplicity in being is more evident to us than the premises of this argument![6] In particular, while it is initially plausible to think that being and nonbeing are exhaustive, perhaps there is some third option that enables us to avoid the Parmenidean collapse. This third thing, whatever it is, must have some influence over being (similar to being) but without contributing any being of itself (similar to nonbeing). But if it makes no positive contribution to being (as being does) then its influence must be negative, demarcating what being is not. And if it is to avoid completely excluding being (as nonbeing does), then this demarcation cannot be absolute. Thus, this third thing must be what we could call relative nonbeing, a midpoint between absolute nonbeing and absolute being.

Relative nonbeing, then, is that whereby being is multiplied, it is the otherness by which something is other than other things. Alice is not Bob because there is a principle within Alice by virtue of which she is not Bob, Charlie, Eve, or anything else—that is, relative to all these other things, Alice is not. We call the principle of relative nonbeing potentiality, and we call the principle of being actuality (or act). Both actuality and potentiality must be real principles of things lest they not be able to play the role they do in the multiplicity of being. Furthermore, they need to be really distinct from one another because their functions are in some sense opposed to one another, with actuality providing being and potentiality limiting or constraining it.

We may worry that there is an implicit (and unjustified) assumption lurking somewhere in the background here, of the principle of identity of indiscernibles. Why do we need some feature of a being to explain its distinction from other beings? Why not simply assume that such a distinction is primitive? In an important sense, we do take it to be primitive—relative nonbeing is postulated as an ontological primitive that isn’t analyzable into any more fundamental principles. We are not suggesting that the distinction between beings is accounted for by some property they have, since the properties themselves are part of being’s diversity which we seek to explain. What we don’t do is consider distinction to be theoretically primitive, in the sense that our theory simply assumes it without looking for its basis in reality. If we are faced with two theories, one of which is able to explain a phenomenon and the other of which simply refuses to explain it, the former is preferable when our entire aim is to give an account of reality.

Potentiality as the passive capacity for act

The second account of potentiality arises from the analyses of causation and change. Suppose Alice teaches something to Bob, which is to say that she causes him to change from being uneducated to being educated. Again, we say that act (or actuality) is the principle of being, so Bob’s change would be from being actually uneducated to being actually educated.

Now, throughout this process Bob must have the capacity for being educated—if we considered him apart from his educatedness, we would find that nothing determines it one way or the other. This is in contrast to what we find in the case of a tree or a squirrel, where the nature of each excludes the possibility of them being educated. Bob must continue having the capacity for being educated once Alice has educated him, because his being educated just is the fulfillment of this capacity—take away the capacity and he stops being able to be educated! Just as a water jar retains its capacity for holding water whether it is empty or full, so too does Bob retain his capacity whether he is uneducated or educated.

Similarly, Alice must have a “productive” capacity for realizing Bob’s “receptive” capacity. If we considered her apart from Bob’s being or becoming educated, we would find that nothing determines one way or the other about Bob. After all, Alice has this capacity before and after Bob’s being educated, and it exists even if something gets in the way of Bob being able to learn (lack of attention, distraction, misunderstanding, etc.).[7]

Generalizing this example, a potency is a capacity for some act, and we can distinguish between two types. The capacity for producing some act in another is called an active potency, which today is more commonly called a power;[8] and the capacity for receiving some act into one’s being is called a passive potency, or a potentiality. So, in our example, Bob has the potential for being educated while Alice has the power to educate him—to actualize this potential of his. An important difference between potentiality and power is that the former involves an indeterminacy within the thing that has it whereas the latter does not. This is a consequence of how we arrived at each concept: a capacity is conceived in abstraction from its act, so that if the act is within something (as in the case of potentiality) then the capacity corresponds to a non-actuality (and therefore indeterminacy) within it, but if the act is outside of something (as in the case of power) then the capacity corresponds to how it actually is (and is therefore determinate).[9]

While this is all worth exploring in more detail, here we are concerned solely with what this means for potentiality. From the perspective of causation and change, potentiality is a capacity of a thing that makes it “open” to some act without determining one way or the other whether it is in fact actual in that way.

What these accounts mean for act-potency pluralism

So, then, we have two accounts of potentiality arising from two different observations about reality, and it is relatively easy to see that they are equivalent. Indeterminacy regarding some actuality (passive potency) is equivalent to making no positive contribution of being (relative nonbeing), and being contrary to Y, Z, and so on for all options other than X (relative nonbeing) is equivalent to being for X (passive potency). Thus, these two accounts just give us two complementary perspectives on the same fundamental principle, potentiality.

We can now return to the question of whether this distinction between actuality and potentiality entails (or is equivalent to) a pluralism about being in Merrick’s sense. Do our reasons for positing potentiality as a real principle of things motivate a denial of generic existence? Or does potentiality amount to some second kind of existence alongside actuality? Hopefully our discussion up until this point will have made it clear that the answer to both of these questions is no. Both act and potentiality are real and distinct principles of things, but there is only one “generic existence”, and that’s act—when we say things are thus and so we mean that they are actual. Potentiality is not another way of being (in Merrick’s sense), it is relative nonbeing and of itself is indifferent to what is actually the case.

This remains true even when what we affirm a potentiality to be thus and so, because potentiality only ever exists in virtue of actuality, either through composition with some act (its actualization) or as the second potentiality of some act. Composition is what obtains when potentiality comes to limit or circumscribe act, as we needed to posit in order to avoid the Parmenidean collapse. In this case, act supplies being while potentiality limits it to this being rather than that being. It is in virtue of the actuality, then, that the potentiality can be operative as a principle of limitation since without it there would be no positive being to limit. Second potentialities are the more intuitive way in which potentials are said to exist. These occur when the actualization of a potentiality leaves some residual indeterminacy, thereby constituting a further potentiality. Once Alice actualizes her potential to be able to read (by learning how), this results in the further potentiality to actually learn from this or that book.[10] Or, using other Aristotelian categories, Bob exists by virtue of his substantial form actualizing his underlying prime matter, which results in further potentials for having different heights, skills, knowledge, and so on. It’s second potentialities which accounts for things being in potency to various things, ie. to have the unactualized potential for being something. A second potential can exist without being actualized because it is grounded in a lower-level actuality, on account of which we say that the potential is thus and so.

So, then, I don’t think Schmid’s argument holds much weight against the Thomistic view of existence or the act-potency distinction more generally. Even if we accept premises (18) and (19), we should reject the implicit assumption that the act-potency distinction commits us to act-potency pluralism. In Merrick’s sense, the Thomist thinks there is only one way of being, namely by act. Potentiality is not another way of being, but relative nonbeing and the capacity for act.


[1] Trenton Merricks, “The Only Way to Be.”, 593, quoted by Schmid.

[2] He does note that his argument is “applied to act-potency pluralism, but it applies mutatis mutandis to the De Ente argument—simply replace ‘a-existence’ and ‘p-existence’ with ‘d-existence’ and ‘c-existence’ (representing ‘divine existence’ and ‘creaturely existence’, respectively).” However, he doesn’t explain why such a translation would leave the justifications for the relevant premises unaffected. After all, c-existence is not the same as p-existence.

[3] In footnote 25, he suggests that act-potency pluralism encapsulates the first of the 24 Thomistic Theses. However, this thesis does not say that act and potency are two ways of being, but rather that everything which exists is either purely actual things or an act-potency composite. As we shall see, this does not require that act and potency be two ways of being in Merrick’s sense.

[4] Merricks, 599, quoted by Schmid.

[5] For a very detailed discussion of Aquinas’s account in response to Parmenides, as well as the discussion of the notion of relative nonbeing, see John Wippel’s The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas.

[6] Modern readers will recognize this as a Moorean shift, but it is also a consequence of the methodology outlined by Aristotle in Physics I. We do not have direct access to the principles of things, but only the composites of which they are principles. Thus, we are justified in believing some purported system of principles only insofar as it accounts for those things which are more manifest to us. Parmenides’ argument is rejected, therefore, because it proposes a system of principles that fails to account for the manifest multiplicity of being.

[7] These two kinds of capacity correspond to the two senses of potentia discussed by Aquinas in De Potentia I Q1.

[8] We should note that Aquinas tends to use the word “power” as equivalent to “potency”, so that for him there are active powers and passive powers. In modern times, we tend to think of powers as exclusively active.

[9] We connect non-actuality with indeterminacy because if something is neither actually X nor actually ~X, then it is indeterminate between X and ~X.

[10] Of course, there is also an active potency at play here, but we are interested in the passive potency which is realized when Alice gains knowledge from her reading.

God’s act of choosing

Classical theism holds that God is absolutely simple, which is to say that there is no absolute distinction within him, sometimes summarized by the phrase “all that is in God just is God.” For Thomists, this entails that God must be purely actual, which is to say that there is no mixture of potentiality and actuality in him as there are in his creatures—everything in God is one act. But if everything is one act, then how could he have acted otherwise? I have discussed this in the past, where I criticized the reasoning behind this question, so here I want to delve a bit more into the positive account of how I think about God’s freedom.

The basic problem is that the following statements seem incompatible with one another:

  1. God engages in the same act in every possible world.
  2. This act of God occurs in the same circumstance in every possible world.
  3. God determines which possible world is actualized.
  4. A different possible world could have been actualized.

It might not be clear why (2) is necessary, but if it weren’t then we could easily explain how the same act results in different possible worlds with reference to the difference in circumstances in which the act occurs. Such a move is not open to the Thomist, however, because if the circumstance of God’s choice differed between possible worlds then it would be contingent, and we hold that God is the cause of all contingent truths. Denying (3) amounts to denying that God is the creator and denying (4) amounts to a modal collapse, both of which are problematic. In my opinion, the answer isn’t to be found in denying any of these statements, but in clarifying what is involved in this single act of God.

The one act of God involves many things that for us obtain in different acts: by this one act, God knows, and chooses, and causes, and loves, and so on. These things are diversified in us because they result from the actualization of diverse potentials, but in God there is no potentiality and therefore no such diversification. Since the one act of God involves various such aspects, one aspect might help us to understand something about this act that another does not. In particular, if we consider the act in terms of free choice, then I think we can understand how the above four statements are compatible with one another.

Something that is often discussed in the context of free choice is the ability to choose otherwise. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I don’t think we should elevate this to a universal requirement of free choice, but it does apply in many cases. Regardless, we should certainly say that it applies in the case of God’s choice of which possible world to actualize. In cases where it does apply, we say that an agent in circumstance C freely chooses A only if they could have chosen something other than A in the same circumstance. The “circumstance,” here, is taken to include the entire state of affairs causally prior to the choice by the agent, including the agent’s own psychological state. Understandably, then, one objection that is sometimes leveled against such views is that it seems impossible to explain why the agent chose as they did rather than the alternative.

It seems to me that we can give an explanation that aligns well with our intuitions about our own choices. If we suppose that a reason for preferring one option over another results in a corresponding power for choosing that option rather than the alternative, then the fact that we can have reasons for various options means we will have the corresponding powers for choosing between those options. Imagine that Alice is choosing between two incompatible options, A and B. Then the circumstance C prior to her choice will include reason RA for choosing A over B and reason RB for choosing B over A. In this case, RA will result in a power in Alice to choose A rather than B, and RB will result in a power in Alice to choose B rather than A. Assuming that Alice in fact chooses A rather than B then RA will explain her choice, and conversely if she chooses B rather than A then RB will do the explaining. In either case, then, C has the sufficient resources to explain the choice that Alice makes, even though she could have made a different choice.

However, there needs to be more in the picture if we are to fully account for Alice’s choice. After all, if Alice had all these reasons but then something external forced her to choose one way or the other, then we wouldn’t say that she freely chose anything. Because of this, we need to include an additional condition, to the effect that a free choice is something that arises from the agent themselves rather than being externally imposed upon them. From an Aristotelian perspective, this means that a free choice must result from an act within Alice, in which the agent moves themselves from being impressed by reasons for her different options to pursuing one of those options rather than the others. More generally, this “act of choosing” or “act of arbitration” is one in which the agent comprehends all the reasons for the various options, arbitrates between them, and exercises the relevant power for choice that is grounded by the relevant reasons.

Now, this act of choosing will be the same regardless of which option ends up being chosen. We can retroactively qualify in terms of the particular choice that was made—as the act of choosing A or the act of choosing B—but this will just be a world-relative way of thinking about an act which in itself is unqualified and the same in each world—the act of choosing between A and B. After all, the act of choosing is part of the explanation which is supposed to be compatible with either choice. And if there were distinct acts of choosing A and of choosing B, then neither would be compatible with the contrary choice.

So, in the case of human choice, we can distinguish between three stages. In the first stage we understand something as worthy of pursuit for some reason, which includes it among the options of our choice and constitutes a power for us to pursue it. In the second stage, we apply the act of choosing, whereby we comprehend the options, arbitrate between them, and exercise one of these powers. This transitions us to the third stage, wherein we actually pursue the option we chose in the second. We may speculate that in some choices (such as the choice to believe something) there is really no third stage. But at least in most cases, the third stage is necessary in humans because we will need to move or change ourselves in some way in order to pursue anything.

Human choice is broken up into stages like this because everything we do is achieved through the successive actualizations of various potentials. By contrast, in God there are no potentials, and therefore no need for such a succession. God does not need to discover anything, or deliberate over the options by considering one feature and then the next. Instead, in his one act he knows the options immediately and altogether. As such, both first and second stages of the above process occur together: God comprehends the options and arbitrates between them all at once. Furthermore, God does not need to change himself in order to pursue the option he chooses. He doesn’t need to get his body in position or start thinking about something else before he can do something, but immediately causes his choice. So either we should say that there just is no third stage with God, or that it occurs along with the first two.

The upshot of this is that God’s one act involves an act of choosing, and an act of choosing is something which allows for alternate outcomes. So, while it’s true that God does the same thing in every possible world, the thing he does involves choosing which world to actualize, and is therefore compatible with any number of worlds resulting from it.

A simpler argument about essentially ordered series

In the previous post I explained what an essentially ordered series is and gave an argument to the effect that every such series must have a first member. While I still think the argument works, discussions about the post with others have led me to realize that we can give a considerably simpler argument for the same conclusion.

Start with a case of one thing causally influencing another, say Alice picking up her mug from the table. The thing doing the causing (Alice) is the agent and the thing being influenced (the mug) is the patient. Both the agent and the patient contribute something that enables the causation to occur, namely the actuality in the agent and the potential in the patient,[1] and the causation itself consists in these contributions coming together in such a way that the potential can be actualized by the actuality.

A causal series is a series of successive causations. When this occurs, the members of the series fall into one of three categories: the first member (if there is one) is an agent without being a patient; the last member is a patient without being an agent; and each intermediate member is in some sense both an agent and a patient. For any intermediate member, its agency and its patiency will coincide either accidentally or essentially. They coincide accidentally when the actuality whereby the member is an agent is to some extent distinct from the potential whereby it is a patient. For instance, when Bob lifts Charlie so that he can grab an item off the top shelf, Charlie has the potential to be lifted and the actuality of grabbing, where the latter is distinct from the former.[2] An intermediate member’s agency and patiency coincide essentially when the actuality whereby it is an agent just is the actualization of the potential whereby it is a patient. For instance, when Alice moves a stone in a shape on the ground using a stick, the actuality in the stick whereby it moves the stone just is the actualization of its potential to be moved in that way.

This essential coincidence of agency and patiency captures a unique middle ground between the “pure” agent and patient that we started with, and for this reason we introduce a third term to describe this sort of member: instrument. Similar to an agent, an instrument has an actuality in virtue of which it actualizes the potential of something else. Unlike an agent, this actuality is something the instrument receives from another as part of the functioning of the causal series rather than something that it contributes itself. Similar to a patient, then, the only thing the instrument contributes to the series is the potential. But unlike a patient, the potential contributed by the instrument is the potential for actualizing a potential in the next member of the series.

By contrast, the accidental coincidence of agency and patiency does not require us to introduce another sort of member, since in this case the intermediate member is separately a patient of the member preceding it and an agent of the member succeeding it.

We are now in a position to introduce the distinction between two types of causal series. An accidentally ordered series is a causal series in which the agency and patiency of every intermediate member coincide accidentally, whereas an essentially ordered series is one in which they coincide essentially. In other words, none of the intermediate members in an accidentally ordered series are instruments, while in an essentially ordered series all of them are instruments.[3]

Given this distinction, we can see quite easily that every essentially ordered series must have a first member. After all, if any such series didn’t have a first member, then the only members in the series would be the instruments and the patient. But instruments and patients only contribute potentials to the series, and therefore this series would not have any actuality in it. But without any actuality, no potentials can be actualized to bring about any effect. And therefore, this series wouldn’t in fact cause anything at all.


[1] More technically, a contribution of a member M to a causal series S is some intrinsic feature of M which makes it possible for S to obtain and which it does not receive as part of S obtaining.

[2] There can still be some overlap or dependency and still be considered distinct, so long as the actualization of the potential is not identical to the actuality.

[3] We are restricting ourselves to causal series where there is at least one intermediate member so that we can give succinct versions of these definitions.

Every essentially ordered series has a first member

A causal series or chain is an ordered collection of members, where earlier members cause or explain later members. Every member other than the first is preceded by one other member, and every member other than the last is succeeded by one other member. We can distinguish between accidentally ordered series and essentially order series. These don’t exhaust all the casual series there could be, but they do pick out important groups.

The difference between these two types of causal series can be illustrated with paradigm examples. A paradigm case of accidentally ordered series is that of parents begetting children: x begets y, y begets z, and so on. On the other hand, a paradigm case of essentially ordered series is that of someone moving a stone in a shape on the ground using a stick.

In both of these cases the later members depend on earlier members, but they do so in different ways. In the stick-and-stone case the stick moves the stone only insofar as it is moved by the person, whereas in the begetting case it is not true that y begets z only insofar as x begets y. Put another way, in the begetting case there is a measure of independence between members that is absent in the stick-and-stone case. Or to put it yet another way, in the stick-and-stone case we have an example of caused causing — the person causes the stick’s causing the stone to move — whereas this is not so in the begetting case.

Contrary to the impression we might get from these examples, the difference is not simply about whether the causes are simultaneous or not. Consider the example of Bob holding Charlie up while Charlie reaches for and picks up something off a high shelf. In this case, Charlie’s reaching is simultaneous with Bob’s lifting, but the latter does not cause the former and so this is an example of an accidentally ordered series.

In my opinion, the best description of the difference between the two types is the third difference we mentioned above: essentially ordered series involve caused causations while accidentally ordered series do not. To put it a bit more generally, we could say that in an accidentally ordered series each member causes the next without causing the members after it, whereas in an essentially ordered series each member causes the next and all subsequent members at once, by causing the later ones through the earlier ones.

Among other things, this description is best because it explains the other two descriptions we gave. The independence that obtains in accidentally ordered series has to do with the fact that members are not caused by members not directly preceding them. And what we mean by “only insofar as” is captured by the fact that intermediate members cause later members because they are caused to do so, like the movement of the stone is caused through the movement of the stick.

Given this difference between these two types of series, we can argue that every essentially ordered series must have a first member as follows:

  1. The entirety of any essentially ordered series forms an act.
  2. This act must arise from one of the members within the series.
  3. The member from which this act arises must be the first member of the series.
  4. Therefore, every essentially ordered series has a first member.

Regarding premise (1), every causal relation belongs to some act but it is possible for multiple causal relations to belong to a single act. When x causes y’s causing z, there are three causal relations (x causing y, y causing z, x causing y’s causing z), but only one act: x causes y and z at once, by causing z through y. We might think about y causing z in isolation from anything x does, but properly speaking it is part of the act arising from x. On the other hand, it is of course possible for multiple causes to work together while belonging to separate acts. Every member in every accidentally ordered series acts separately from the other, since we have said that it causes the next member of the series without causing any of the subsequent members.

With this in mind, premise (1) says that for any essentially ordered series, there is some act to which the entire series belongs. If this weren’t the case, then there would need to be two or more acts such that any part of the series is contained in at least one of them, but the entire series is not contained in any of them. To see why this cannot be the case, assume to the contrary that x and y are two members of the series, such that x is part of some act X but not part of some act Y and y is part of Y but not X. We can assume, without loss of generality, that y is subsequent to x in the series. Now, because we’re in an essentially ordered series, x causes the next member as well as all subsequent members at once, by causing the later ones through the earlier ones. Among these, therefore, x will cause y and y’s causing whatever it does. Therefore, y will be part of the act to which x belongs, namely X, which is a contradiction. Since every member must be part of some act (otherwise it would not be doing anything), it follows that all members must belong to the same act. Therefore, the entire series forms an act.

Regarding premise (2), we note that whatever a causal series does is reducible to what its members do, and therefore we have three options for whence the act of the series arises: (a) from nothing, (b) from one member, or (c) from a multitude of members. It can’t arise from nothing, since nothing comes from nothing. It also can’t arise from a multitude of members, since any multitude will contain at least one member from which it cannot arise, even in part. After all, any multitude will have at least two members with one being subsequent to the other, and therefore one caused to do what it does by the other. In this case, the act will in no way arise from this later member, not even partially. Thus, the act does not arise from that particular multitude, but some proper part of it. Since the same could be said of any multitude, it follows that the act arises from no multitude. This leaves us with option (b), that the act arises from one member within the essentially ordered series.

Regarding premise (3), if the act arises from a single member then that member is not caused to act by members prior to it. Since every member other than the first is caused to act by members prior to it, this member from which the act arises cannot have any members prior to it. Thus, it is the first member in the series.

The conclusion in (4) is sufficient for many of the uses of essentially ordered series, such as some arguments for God’s existence or Aristotle’s argument that there must be some chief good (see the last section here). But we could also use it to say something about the finitude of essentially ordered series. Since every member has one predecessor and one successor, and since there must always be a first member, it follows that the only way for the series to be infinite is if it has no last member. Conversely, then, any essentially ordered series with a last member must be finite.

Feser on Koons on relative actuality

In a recent blog post, Edward Feser outlines a problem he sees with Rob Koons’ usage of relative actuality/potentiality to explain how an Aristotelian B-theorist might explain the reality of change. If you want to see Koons’ proposal then take a look at section 6 of his paper or take a look at Feser’s brief summary of it on his blog post; I will assume a general familiarity with it in this post. The objection is as follows:

Suppose someone suggested that time was nothing more than a spatial dimension.  I reject this view, and Rob wants to avoid it too.  One problem with it is that it also seems incompatible with the existence of real potentialities in the world.  If past, present, and future events are equally real in exactly the same way that the spatially separated hot and cold ends of a fireplace poker are (to borrow a famous example from McTaggart), then it seems that they are equally actual, just as the hot and cold ends of the poker are equally actual.  There is no real potentiality in a spatialized conception of time, and thus no real change — and thus, really, no time either.

But suppose our imagined spatializer of time defended his view by saying that there is potentiality of at least a relative sort on his conception of time.  Suppose he appealed to the poker analogy, and suggested that we could say that relative to the left side of the poker, the poker was actually cold but potentially hot, whereas relative to the right side, it was actually hot and potentially cold.  Suppose he suggested that there was therefore a kind of “change” in the poker from left to right.  And suppose he suggested that a similar kind of relative actuality and potentiality could be attributed to things and events at his spatialized points of time, and that a similar kind of change could therefore be attributed to them too.

In my view this would be clearly fallacious, involving little more than a pun on the word “change.” … I imagine Rob might agree, since, as I say, he too wants to avoid spatializing time, or at least denies that the B-theory need be interpreted as spatializing it.  But I fail to see how Rob’s notion of relative actuality and potentiality captures real potentiality, and thus real change, any more than my imagined spatializer of time does.

Feser’s point here is that the relativization of actuality/potentiality doesn’t help the spatializer to account for change, and he struggles to see how it could be comparatively any better for Koons. But I think he misdiagnoses the problem with the spatializer’s suggestion, and in fixing the diagnosis the difference between the spatializer and the Aristotelian B-theorist becomes clear.

As the last sentence of the quote makes clear, Feser thinks that the problem with the spatializer’s account lies in the fact that there are no real potentials anywhere, and so there can be no real change. But in the poker example, there surely are real potentials in the picture: the cold end is actually cold and potentially hot, whereas the hot end is actually hot and potentially cold. Anyone who accepts the Aristotelian account of change will affirm this, since we all know that pokers can change from hot to cold and back again. And they will likewise tell you can’t deny the presence of potentials simply because of the presence of actualities. Thus, if we suppose that time is spatially spread out like the poker, then the mere fact that all events are actual doesn’t prevent them from including various real potentials. Moreover, these real potentials and actualities seem to be adequately demarcated by using the notions of relative actuality and potentiality, so the problem isn’t there either.

The true problem with the spatializer’s answer is not that there are no real potentials, but that the potentials and the actualities are not connected in such a way so as to constitute change. Change, after all, is the actualization of a potential, it is not the spatial coincidence of a potential with an actuality. We can think of it like this: one reason someone might spatialize time is in order to explain why time is extended rather than collapsing into a single moment — it is extended, they say, for the same reason that space is extended, whatever that reason happens to be. But, of course, the extension of space doesn’t depend on the actualization of potentials, and therefore we know that simply pointing at spatially separated potentials and actualities doesn’t give us real instances of change. The problem, then, is that the spatializer spatializes time, and in doing so removes the possibility of an actuality ever being the actualization of a potential.

By contrast, the Aristotelian B-theorist need not spatialize time in order to explain its extension, because they have a ready alternative: the extension of time is explained by the actualizations of potentials. That is, the fundamental reason why things exist through multiple moments is that at earlier moments they have potentials which are actualized in order to bring about later moments. Of course, we’ve explained before that this is only the beginning of the account, since things can also move through time because of their real relations to other things. But even after we fill out all the details, the extension of time will always ultimately be explained with reference to the actualization of potentials — which, you will notice, is another way of stating the Aristotelian position that time is the measure of change.

So, then, the difference between the Aristotelian B-theorist and the spatializing B-theorist is that the former accounts for the extension of time in terms of the actualizations of potentials, whereas the latter has no room for the actualization of potentials because of how they account for the extension of time.

The sense in which an agent is directly involved in producing the effect

In my second post on omni-instrumentality I said the following with respect to God’s essential cooperation with the natural powers of his creatures:

… 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.

The difference, I claimed, lies in the fact that the creature causes the effect whereas God causes the causing of the effect. God is the divine agent whereas the creature is the divine instrument. Given the breadth of topics covered in that post, it’s understandable that I didn’t spend too much time dwelling on this point. Nevertheless, it is a puzzling claim to make and reader Mashsha’i has drawn attention to this in comments on the post. After some back and forth with Mashsha’i in the comments, I’ve decided it’s worth to put my thoughts together in a short follow-up post.

Starting with an imperfect but intuitive example, imagine Alice and Bob are hanging up a big painting. This can work in at least three ways, which correspond to the three modes of cooperation. First, it could be that the two of them are holding the painting together at the right height while trying to hook it against the wall, which would be coordinate cooperation. Second, it could be that Alice gave Bob the painting as a gift which he is hanging it up himself, which would be accidental cooperation. And third, it could be that Bob is busy holding up the painting while Alice instructs him how to move so as to get the painting in the correct position, which would be essential cooperation — by guiding him Alice causes Bob to cause the painting to hang properly.

With these three cases in hand, we may ask: in which of them is Alice directly involved in the hanging of the painting? At least in the first two scenarios the answer is clear: Alice is directly involved in the case of coordinate cooperation, and only indirectly involved in the case of accidental cooperation. But what about the essential cooperation? It seems to me that there is a sense in which Alice is directly involved in the hanging — since the hanging of the painting occurs by virtue of her and Bob working together — but it is equally clear that this cannot be the same sense which applies in the coordinate cooperation.1

Reflecting on the painting example, I think we can distinguish between two senses of what it means to be “directly involved”. Something is directly involved in the production of an effect if (1) it directly contributes to the effect, or (2) is contributes to an act which directly brings about the effect. These two senses are not incompatible but neither are they coextensive: whenever we have (1) we also have (2), but not vice versa. In the coordinate cooperation, both Alice and Bob directly influence the motion of the painting, and so both (1) and (2) are true of both Alice and Bob. In the accidental cooperation, both (1) and (2) are true of Bob, and neither are true of Alice. And in the essential cooperation, both Alice and Bob contribute to the act of hanging the painting but only Bob directly influences the motion of the painting, meaning that (1) and (2) are true of Bob but only (2) is true of Alice.

Using the categories of my post on cooperation, what’s common between these two senses of direct involvement is that there is combination between Alice and Bob in the production of the final product. Within this commonality, the difference between the two lies in the fact that coordinate cooperation is combination without dependence while essential cooperation is combination with dependence. The introduction of dependence in essential cooperation means that of the two things cooperating in the act, the second cause will directly contribute to the effect while the first cause will merely contribute to the act that directly brings about the effect.

In the case of God’s essential cooperation with nature, we can say two things. First, the sort of direct involvement he has in the final product of the cooperation will be the second one outlined above, but with an important qualification: apart from the particular way in which Bob depends on Alice in our essential cooperation example, he is largely independent of her; on the other hand, a creature is entirely dependent upon God for all of its being. Thus, the “distance” between Alice and Bob is far greater than that between God and the creature.

Second, while I was right (in my post on concurrence) to say that God is directly involved in the production of final products, I was wrong to equate “direct” with “immediate”. In the cooperation, God is directly involved in the production of the effect precisely by virtue of mediating his causal power through the creature in the act which directly brings about the effect.2 Thus, while God is directly involved in the production of the effect, his involvement is mediated rather than immediate. In fact, this might well another way of characterizing the difference between the two senses of direct involvement: the first sense involves direct and immediate involvement, while the latter direct and mediated involvement.


  1. In my post on cooperation I defined “direct” as “having no intermediate product” (“This occurs between two things when a product arises directly from the influence of both of them, which is to say that there are no intermediate products between the causes and their mutual product”), but we still need to explain the difference between coordinate and essential cooperation in this respect.
  2. The qualification “in the cooperation” is important, for there are many cases in which God does immediately cause the effect. For instance, parents mediate the becoming of a child, but God immediately causes its continued being.

Existential inertia in terms of inertial actuality

This is part two of my follow-up to my original post on potentiality and inertia, where I respond to comments made by defenders of existential inertia. In the previous post we delved deeper into the nature of potentials, and saw that not everything we call a potential is equally deserving of the name. This helped us clarify the indifference of potentials, and how they relate to their actualizations. In my estimation, the indifference of potentials is the core reason for thinking that potentials depend on some other actuality for their continued actualization. In the course of this post, we will have an opportunity to further unpack these two ideas and the connection between them.

The objection of interest for this post is raised both by Joe Schmid and Graham Oppy in different contexts. Oppy, in responding to a paper by Feser, says the following:

Yesterday, throughout the entire day, there was a red chair in my room. Pick some time t around noon yesterday. At t, the chair existed, and the chair was red. Moreover, at t, the chair had the potential to exist, and to be red, at t + ε, where ε is some relatively short time interval (say, a millionth of second). Do we need to postulate the existence of some distinct thing that exists through (t, t + ε) that actualizes at t + ε the potential that the chair had at t to both exist and be red at t + ε? I do not think so. Given that, at t, the chair has the potential to exist and to be red at t + ε, all that is required for the realization of this potential is that nothing intervenes to bring it about, either that the chair does not exist, or that the chair is not red, at t + ε. Potentials to remain unchanged do not require distinct actualizers; all they require is the absence of any preventers of the actualization of those potentials. In particular, things that have the potential to go on existing go on existing unless there are preventers — internal or external — that cause those things to cease to exist.1

In private correspondence, Schmid has raised a similar objection: even if we grant the continued indifference of potentials, all we need is some kind of explanation, not necessarily an explanation in terms of a concurrent sustaining efficient cause. The persistence in actuality could be explained by a whole host of explanatory factors that don’t invoke sustaining causes — for example, the prior state and existence of the object combined with no sufficiently destructive causal factors, or in terms of an existential inertia tendency, or something else.

It may come as a surprise, but for the most part I am in agreement with Oppy and Schmid: it is often the case that something with an actualized potential P does not require some external sustaining cause to sustain the actualization of P. As I mentioned in my original post, Newtonian inertia is a great example of this: physical objects remain maintain their rectilinear motion until some other thing causes them to stop. And the example of the chair’s “inertial color” given by Oppy is another good example: the chair maintains its color until something causes it to be another color. The trouble is that these examples don’t undermine a more nuanced rejection of existential inertia.

In my original post, we saw that the indifference of potentials is consistent with inertial behavior because of what we termed “inertial actualities”. There we arrived at these in a fairly roundabout way, but we can get to them more directly as follows. Say we have some S with potential P and its actualization A at time t, and we want an account of how A persists until some later time t+ε. Given that potentials are indifferent to their actualizations, it can’t be that P keeps A around. Of course, the continued existence of P is necessary for the continued existence of A, but its indifference to A makes it insufficient for the task. There must be something else in the picture, that isn’t indifferent to the continued actualization of P. At this point, a proponent of existential inertia might note that this could be an intrinsic aspect of S to maintain A in the absence of contrary causes. And it certainly could be, but we can know more about it. Since it’s not indifferent to A, it cannot be another potential. And since being is divided into potentiality and actuality, it must therefore be an actuality. Moreover, this actuality must be closely connected to P in a way that other actualities in S are not. This is what I call an “inertial actuality” since it’s an actuality that explains the inertial behavior of the actualization of P.

Going further, I have suggested that we understand an inertial actuality as an incomplete determination to some behavior, in such a way that it allows for variation in the details of how that behavior plays out.2 This incomplete determination gives us potentials for the actuality to express itself in concrete ways. The example of interest in my original post was Newtonian inertia: by virtue of something existing as a physical thing it is determined to continue its rectilinear motion (behavior) but does not fix the vector of that motion (incomplete). Let’s say we’re considering the potential some S has to be moving along some vector V. This potential arises from the incomplete determination of S to continued rectilinear motion, but is (as all real potentials are) indifferent as to whether S is actually moving along the relevant vector. However, when the potential is actualized in S, by virtue of the underlying inertial actuality S will continue along V until stopped by something else. This isn’t because P has somehow stopped being indifferent to its actualization, but because P exists in virtue of an underlying inertial actuality that was never indifferent to S’s motion. Similarly, the material constitution of a typical chair entails that it will have some color, but is consistent with this color being one among a wide range of options. Again, this incomplete determination gives rise to a variety of potentials, each of which is indifferent to whether it is actualized. But when one is actualized, the material constitution of the chair (not the potential) ensures that it will remain actualized in the absence of contrary causes.

Thus, the inertial behavior we observe in the world points us to the lower-level inertial actuality that gives some potentials existence and maintains their actualizations in the absence of contrary causes. The relationship between the two isn’t ad hoc, either, for it is the incomplete determination to the relevant behavior that gives rise to the potentials in the first place. Furthermore, such incomplete determinations have long been recognized when thinking about change, apart from questions of existential inertia.3

All of this helps us see that Oppy’s “potential to remain unchanged” is just another example of a pseudo-potential, this time made up of the potential and the inertial actuality from whence it arises. And it also helps us see the truth of the point made by both Schmid and Oppy, that the indifference of potentials doesn’t necessitate some external sustaining cause outside of the thing with the potential, for the inertial actuality is neither external nor an efficient cause.

Where does this leave us on the question of existential inertia? I think there are two things we can say here.

First, we are still left in need of external causes for actualized potentials that can’t be sustained by some lower-level inertial actuality. Aristotelians have traditionally recognized the distinction between prime matter and substantial form, and Thomists have recognized the real distinction between essence and existence.4 Now, both prime matter and essence are potentials that have no lower-level actualities, and therefore there can be no inertial actuality to maintain their actualizations. In these cases, then, we would need some external cause to sustain the actualizations of these potentials.

Second, we can shift the question of existential inertia from substances to their potentials and actualities, and thereby render moot the question of external efficient causes. The question of existential inertia typically arises in the context certain arguments for God’s existence, such as Aquinas’s argument in On Being and Essence5 and his second way.6 These formulations frame the argument in terms of efficient causes of existence, but strictly speaking all we need is the actualization of potentials by other actualities. That is, we can start with some actuality and build an essentially ordered series of actualizers leading back to a pure actuality. The question of whether this requires a separate substance from the one we started with can be settled as a corollary of what it means to be pure actuality. Despite sounding similar to Aquinas’s first way — which is also construed in terms of actuality and potentiality — this is in fact a different argument. The first way proceeds from the reduction of potentiality to actuality, whereas this argument proceeds from the continued actualization of potentials.

The upshot of all of this, I think, is a more nuanced understanding of existential inertia and its rejection. When we discuss the continued existence of some aspect of reality, we need to get clear on whether it can be explained by some inertial actuality within a substance or not. And if we wish to establish a separate sustaining cause of something, then we need to be clear on which potentials we’re considering within that thing, for not all require such an explanation.


  1. Graham Oppy, “On stage one of Feser’s ‘Aristotelian proof’”.↩︎
  2. There we spoke about this in terms of form and matter, but for this post we will try to restrict ourselves simply to language of actuality and potential.↩︎
  3. For example, they arise in the distinction between substantial and accidental forms in the course of making sense of the difference between substantial and accidental change.↩︎
  4. For my previous discussions on these, see my posts on God, matter, and necessary existence and the real distinction.↩︎
  5. See the bottom of page 240 here.↩︎
  6. See the corpus of ST I Q2 A3.↩︎

The indifference of potentials and the non-indifference of pseudo-potentials

Recent comments by defenders of existential inertia have motivated me to return to the topic of my earlier post on potentiality and inertia. In that post I proposed that a key feature of potentials is that they are indifferent to what is actually the case. This, I explained, is the core reason for thinking that the continued actualization of a potential must depend on some other actuality. In this post we will clarify this further, and in the next post we will say more about the relation of all of this to inertia.

Joe Schmid, of Majesty of Reason, has put forward the following objection to my earlier post, which we will use as a departure point:

A potential is indifferent when merely potential, but when actualized it is no longer indifferent because it has become actual. We can’t assume that it doesn’t remain in that state of actuality absent a sustaining cause. When actualized, it is determinate with respect to its actuality, and we can’t assume that that determinacy does not persist.1

In another statement of this objection, he asks us to imagine a fence in regard to the color it is painted:

Suppose I have a fence, and the fence has the potential to receive contrary paint colors. Take its potency to be red. Now, prior to being red (the consideration applies in both temporal and ontological senses of ‘priority’), the potency to be red is certainly indifferent to what is actual… But once the actualization occurs — say, by painting the fence red — the potency no longer is indifferent to what’s actual, since it has been made actual. And we cannot just assume that, once actualized, the ‘potency’ (previously a potency) does not or cannot remain in a state of actuality (as that is the very question at issue).2

In responding to this objection, it would help to return to a distinction I mentioned in my earlier post: in everyday language we speak about both the potential for becoming F and the potential for being F, but I noted that these are two different sorts of potentials. Indeed, not only are they different but the latter is more fundamental and more truly a potential than the former.

You see, when we move from our imprecise everyday speech to the more precise notions employed in the Aristotelian account of change, we see that the “potential” for becoming F isn’t a real potential at all. Rather it is an aggregate feature, wholly reducible to (1) the real potential for being F and (2) the actuality of being not-F — or, more accurately, the actuality of being G where G is some feature incompatible with F. This second part is needed because something can’t become F if it’s already F. Since the potential for becoming F is really this aggregate feature made up of both a potential and an actuality, it would be better to call it a “pseudo-potential” for becoming F in contrast to the “pure” or “real” potential for being F. Schmid’s fence has the real potential for being red by virtue of its structure and material constitution, and this real potential together with the fact that the fence is not actually red is what constitutes the pseudo-potential to become red. When the fences’s potential for being red is actualized, it retains the real potential (because it still has the capacity for being red) but loses the pseudo-potential (because it can no longer become red).

Unfortunately, our language is even more misleading than it may first appear, since we don’t often need to make a distinction between real potentials and pseudo-potentials. For example, Schmid’s usage of “merely potential” is in keeping with typical usage, but it isn’t the same thing as a potential simpliciter. The latter is a potential considered in itself. The former indicates that there is a potential and that this potential is unactualized. In other words, despite what we might think a mere potential is the same sort of aggregate feature as the pseudo-potential we considered above. This is why, when the potential is actualized the mere potential ceases to exist and is replaced by an “actualized potential” — a pseudo-potential referring to the same potential but this time with a fact about its actualization instead. Another common way of speaking is not in terms of potentials, but in terms of the things that have the potentials, as when we say something is “potentially F” or “in potentiality with respect to F”. To the best of my knowledge, these are typically understood as meaning that the thing has the mere potential for F.3

Unlike real potentials, pseudo-potentials aren’t indifferent to what is actually the case precisely because they have facts about actualities built into them. I gestured to all of this in my first post with the example of the one-liter bottle. This has the capacity (potential) for containing one liter of water by virtue of its design. When empty this is a mere potential (potential + unactualization) because this capacity is not actually fulfilled, and the bottle has the pseudo-potential for holding a liter more than it does. When filled, the mere potential is replaced with an actualized potential (potential + actualization), and the pseudo-potential to be filled is replaced with the pseudo-potential to be emptied. However, throughout this process the bottle retains the potential for containing a liter of water, for a bottle can’t hold a liter of water if it doesn’t at that moment have the capacity for doing so.

epipotentials

So, real potentials are always indifferent to what is actually the case and pseudo-potentials are never indifferent to what is actually the case. Contrary to Schmid’s suggestion, I don’t think it’s possible to have a potential only sometimes be indifferent. After all, if we supposed that a potential for being F were not indifferent to being F when actualized and indifferent when unactualized, then it’s very indifference would entail that it is actually not F!

It may help if we clarify what we mean when we say a potential is indifferent to “what is actually the case”, since this is an overly-general way of phrasing it. Specifically, a potential is indifferent in regard to its actualization. It’s entirely possible for there to be other “lower level” actualities that a potential is not indifferent to. For example, a human leg is structured in a way that permits a certain freedom of movement, ranging from a straight leg to a fully bent knee. This structure is an actuality which grounds the potential to be in any of a range of different positions. Of itself, the structure of the knee does not fix the position of the knee to any particular position — it is indifferent to the position within this range. In terms of potentials, we would say that it has the potentials to be in any of these positions. Now, each of these potentials is indifferent to the actual position of the knee (ie. whether it itself is actualized or not), but none of them is indifferent to the underlying structure of the knee, since this structure is what sustains each potential in existence. So, to nuance what we’ve been saying, a potential is indifferent to its actualization, but if it arises from a lower level actuality then it is not indifferent to that actuality.

But, we may wonder, isn’t change the actualization of a potential? For sure, but not in such a way that the potential somehow becomes an actuality and ceases being a potential. If that were the case, then we would not be able to account for the permanence across change, and every instance of “change” would amount to simple replacement. When the mere potential becomes an actualized potential, what ties these two pseudo-potentials together is the underlying real potential that remains indifferent across its actualization. Without this we would have a potential one moment and an actuality another moment, but nothing to account for their unity.4

What, then, do we mean when we speak of the actualization of a potential? We mean that a thing’s constitution gives it the capacity for being actual in a particular way (potential), and that this capacity has been realized in that thing (actualization). It’s not as though the capacity has become its realization, but simply that the thing now exists in a way that is within the range permitted by its constitution. This, I think, is why Thomists say that a potential “composes” with its actualization rather than “becomes” it. We could perhaps put this in terms of grounding: the potential is a partial ground for its actualization, in need of additional factors that are not indifferent to the actualization, such as an efficient cause or inertial actuality. Of all the factors that ground the actualization, the potential is what provides the capacity for being actual in the relevant way — it’s the “slot” that’s “filled in” by the other factors. It’s because of this that we associate the actuality with the potential, saying that it is the actualization of that potential.

Consider two examples. First, the materials and shape of the one-liter bottle give it the capacity (potential) for containing water, which is realized when the bottle actually contains one liter of water (actualization). The capacity doesn’t “become” the containment, but grounds it along with the factors that explain why the water is actually there. And second, the way the parts of the knee are connected allows for a certain range of movement corresponding to a collection of potentials for being in various positions. One of these potential together with the actual orientation of these parts relative to one another ground the knee’s actually being in one position rather than another.

To sum up, the analysis of change requires, and concrete examples confirm, that real potentials are indifferent to their actualizations. Schmid’s objection misses the mark because, if anything, it concerns itself with pseudo-potentials rather than real potentials. And this is an understandable consequence of our language failing to distinguish between real potentials and aggregate features made up of both potentials and actualities. While it may not always be necessary to keep such a distinction in mind, it is crucial in the debate over existential inertia.


  1. This particular phrasing came from a private Facebook conversation with Joe.
  2. This longer version of the objection appeared a while back in the Thomism Discussion Group. Emphasis original.
  3. This is how Aristotle uses the word, for instance, when he says that, “change is the actuality of that which exists potentially, in so far as it is potentially this actuality.” (Physics 3.1 201a10-12). See my post on actualization of potentiality as such for a brief discussion of this phrase. At the time I wrote it, I hadn’t thought much about the indifference of potentials, but I don’t think anything I say there is incompatible with it.
  4. At the level of an individual potential and its actualization, the potential acts much like matter in the hylomorphic account of change. This is no coincidence, for matter is the “seat” of the potentials inherent in a material thing. As I’ve explained before, in general matter “is a substratum that of itself is indeterminate between various alternatives, while form is the determination of that substratum to one of those alternatives”. In other words, matter is indifferent to its determination by form.

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.↩︎

Omni-instrumentality 3: Providence

This is the third of four posts on omni-instrumentality, a Thomistic model for divine providence. So far we’ve discussed cooperation (here), the distinction between nature and artifice, the analogy of cooperation, and our proposal that divine concurrence is God’s essential cooperation with nature (here). Although concurrence is the central component to our view on providence, it is not the whole picture. So, in this post we will discuss some of the other components the view, using what we have said so far as a basis. As before, it is highly recommended that you read the previous posts before continuing here.

Inherent and privative limitations

We’ve seen that God’s essential cooperation with nature is a consequence of our absolute dependence upon him as the Creator. We’ve also seen that as divine instruments we act by virtue of God applying us as instruments to our ends. All of this might suggest that we can make no original contribution of our own in our cooperation with him, but in fact we do. In our first post we delineated four ways something can impose upon another when cooperating with it, and you’ll recall that two of these were active (elevation and violence) while the other two were passive (facilitation and limitation). What we’ve said up until now should make it clear that we cannot actively impose upon God’s acting through us, since all our being originates from him; but there is still room for us to passively impose upon it, since this occurs merely through our reception of his causal influence rather than by our adding something to it.

Of the two passive impositions, the more interesting one when it comes to the topic of divine providence is limitation, wherein we hinder God’s causal influence. This hinderance is not a result of us overpowering God in any way (which would be an active imposition), but is the result of our own limitedness. Now, we can distinguish between two kinds of limitation. There are what we can call “inherent” limitations, which instruments impose simply in virtue of having the capacities that they do. For instance, humans are physical creatures, and therefore our scope of influence is limited to where we are at any given moment and the speed at which we can travel: if I’m sitting at home then I can’t influence things at work, and nor can I get to work in the next two minutes. In divine concurrence, then, God’s influence will always be limited to what I am able to achieve through my nature. This also applies to essential cooperation with artifice: an abacus can only calculate with numbers up to a certain point, governed by the number of beads it has; and when Alice moves the stone with the prodder she must work within the constraints of its strength, lest it buckle and break under the pressure of her influence.

In addition to inherent limitations there are what we can call “privative” limitations, which instruments impose by failing to fulfill their ends. In the case of the abacus, if it has lost some beads then it will not be able to calculate to the full extent of its design. In the case of the prodder, if Alice intends to use it to push a stone that is too heavy, and it breaks under her influence, then it has failed to fulfill the end Alice had given it. Of course, for this to happen Alice would need to be ignorant or indignant of the inherent limitations of the underlying stick, but the prodder exists and has its ends because of Alice’s intentions, and to this extent fails to live up to these ends.

Divine concurrence is similar to both of these cases, and God’s design and intention result in our nature and its fulfillment. While we may conceptually distinguish between God giving something a nature and disposing it to its fulfillment, in reality these are the same act.1 Intuitively, this amounts to the fact that when we intend to do something we also intend to do it well. So, when God concurs with an animal, this single act both establishes the animal’s natural life and disposes it to the fulfillment of this nature, which fulfillment is called “health” or “flourishing”. The animal will have inherent limitations based on its nature (a horse will be four-legged, and bird will be able to fly), and when the animal acts contrary to its health, by damaging itself, say, or by not eating properly, then it fails to fulfill its nature, which is a privative limitation.

The remaining notions we will discuss in this post all have something to do with how God incorporates our limitations into his direction of history.

Evil as privative limitation

Privative limitation helps us to explain why divine concurrence does not make God the source of evil. Avoiding this untoward conclusion is perhaps the most compelling reason for restricting God’s influence on our actions, and thereby rejecting the second corollary we mentioned in the previous post. The reasoning goes roughly as follows: if God’s influence on a human’s action were not direct, complete, and total, then we could say that any evil arose when that human added to God’s contribution in order to make the action occur. But while this move may be tempting, it is in fact unnecessary.

The better way to proceed is to build upon the distinction between agent and instrument, and recognize that God’s influence as agent is limited by the human instrument through which he acts. What’s more, this limitation comes in both inherent and privative versions. To see the significance of this, recall that some of our natural powers are volitional powers, whereby we pursue the good. In creating and concurring with our nature, then, God disposes us to the fulfillment of these powers, namely the conscious pursuit of what is truly good. We fall short of this only to the extent that we privatively limit his influence, and to the extent that we fall short of what is truly good, we and our actions are evil. God ordering us toward the good can be likened to Alice disposing the prodder to move the stone, and our limitation of this can be likened to the stick buckling under the pressure. But there is an important difference: the privative limitation of the prodder is the result of an inherent limitation of the underlying stick, but there is no pre-existent underlying thing in God’s concurrence with us. So, our privative limitations cannot be reduced to inherent limitations of something at a lower level.

Now, we must underscore that this privative limitation of God’s influence is not something we add to God’s contribution, but has to do with how we passively receive his influence as he works through us. We are also not saying that God makes us will an end and leaves us to choose the means, for this is just to repeat in different words the mistake we’re trying to avoid. We are saying that both willing and choosing arise from the essential cooperation between God and us, and that the goodness in each originates with God while the evil in each results from our privative limitation. In other words, both we and God cause the action but God doesn’t cause the evil of the action and we don’t originate the good of the action.

In this we see the superiority of our proposal over the alternative. If we restrict the scope of God’s influence (as the alternative does) we may avoid making him the source of evil, but we also avoid making him the source of all goodness. After all, if we need to add to God’s contribution in order for our action to occur, then this addition that can bring evil could also bring good. By contrast, on our proposal God is the sole source of goodness, which we do not add to, but which we can limit in our reception and propagation. We are responsible for the things we do, including the good and evil in them, but God is the source of the good and we are uniquely responsible for the evil.

Divine permission of evil

Once we recognize the possibilities of our original contribution and of privative limitation, we are led to various distinctions within God’s intentions. In particular, there are multiple senses in which he wills something, and an objective difference between what he wills and what he permits.

God’s will extends to what he causes, but this occurs in different ways. When essentially cooperating with a creature, his own contribution reflects his will more directly than the final product, since the latter is mediated through a creature whereas the former is not. Accordingly, while both his own contribution and the final product express his will in the particular action, the former does so more truly than the latter. Furthermore, since the nature of the creature is caused by God, its inherent limitations will also to some extent be part of his will.

Now, since the final product is also impacted by the privative limitations of the creature, what shall we say of the connection between God and these limitations? Like any artist he is cognizant of the limitations of his instruments, and so they must factor into his intentions somehow. But since they arise solely from the creature, and since it is privative of what he most truly wills, it cannot be a product of his will in the same way as the other components we’ve just mentioned. We are led to introduce a new category, namely what God permits. The objective difference between what God wills and what he permits, therefore, lies in whether something arises from God’s actions or not, with volition being further divided by how directly it does so. God most truly wills for goodness to be expressed, permits the evil of his creatures, and incorporates both into the plan he wills for all of history.

Premotion

So far we’ve been focusing on privative limitations, but inherent limitations play an important role in divine providence and are connected to another important notion, namely “premotion”. This term that comes up occasionally in discussions of divine providence, perhaps most often in connection to the Bañezian notion of physical premotion. We will discuss this in the next post, but here we will focus on the form of premotion that applies to our proposal.

The most apt name for this premotion is Aristotelian premotion, but we could also call it accidental premotion. In his Physics, Aristotle notes that every change (or motion) presupposes an earlier change (or motion). For instance, a fire may be able to heat a pan, but it only does so when these two are moved into the appropriate positions relative to one another. Similarly, an agent may make a choice, but this only happens when they find themselves in the appropriate circumstance, impressed by various reasons for choosing among the different options. This earlier change is what we call a premotion.

Some reflection makes it clear that the need for such a premotion is a result of our limitations, both privative as well as inherent. A flame is limited in space and time, and so needs to be brought near something in order to start heating it. And human cognition requires that we be appropriately situated, both in terms of our senses and in terms of our intellects if we are to deliberate and choose. Thus, the need for such premotion does not arise merely from our failures, but also simply from us having the natures that we do.2

God’s direction of history, then, requires that he take into account the limitations of his creatures if he is to avoid doing violence to their nature and freedom. He needs to ensure that the relevant premotion has occurred for a creature to be in the circumstance to act, and once there that the creature’s inherent and privative limitations do not preclude the action he has planned. When the circumstantial, inherent, and privative limitations have been taken into account, then God can concur with the creature through the exercise of its natural powers in accordance with his plan. As we saw last time, this concurrence does not constrain the powers of the creature, but rather constitutes them. And since God concurs with all of creation, he is uniquely capable orchestrating all of history in accordance with his plan.

Grace and special concurrence

Up until now, the kind of divine concurrence that we’ve been discussing is what can be called God’s general concurrence, owing to the fact that it applies to all existing things, in accordance with their natures. There is another kind of concurrence, however, called God’s special concurrence, which applies only when God specially wills to act in this or that creature. Much can be said about special concurrence, but we include a few brief notes simply as a way of recognizing that though general concurrence is the foundation for divine providence, it is not the only component of it.

Now, since general concurrence is God’s essential cooperation with nature, it follows that special concurrence must involve either coordinate or accidental cooperation with nature.3 Since general concurrence is needed for a creature to do anything, special concurrence will be in addition to this rather than instead of it.

Accidental cooperation with nature occurs when God supernaturally enables a creature to act, as when he gave Samson the superhuman strength that he used to kill himself along with the lords of the Philistines by pulling down the supporting pillars of the building they were in (Judges 16:23–31).

Coordinate cooperation with nature occurs when God actively imposes upon a creature’s actions, moving them to act in a particular way that may not otherwise be open to them given their limitations. Eleonore Stump discusses two interesting cases of coordinate cooperation in this sense.4 What makes them interesting is that despite this kind of cooperation involving God acting on a human’s will, neither case amounts to violence against their will.

In the first, imagine Alice is a recovering alcoholic. In this case she still has the dependence upon alcohol and therefore also the first-order desire to drink it. But because she is trying to recover she also has a second-order desire to be free of this dependence, which is to say she desires to no longer desire alcohol in such a dependent way. She is thus divided against herself, and will be so as long as she is on the road to recovery. Now, let’s say that Alice prays to God one day, and asks him to help her fight the temptation to drink alcohol. If God obliges, then he overpower her first-order desire to drink alcohol, thereby supporting her second-order desire for recovery. In this case, though he frustrates her (first-order) will he nevertheless upholds her freedom.

In the second, we are to consider the process of someone coming to faith in God. Traditional Christian doctrine holds that this transition occurs by a supernatural act from God, but that failure to make this transition occurs by obstinance of the unbeliever. In proposing a model to reconcile the tension between these two claims, Stump provides another example of God’s coordinate cooperation with the human will. As background, she notes that the will can be in one of three dispositions: assent, where the will is attracted to something; dissent, where the will is repulsed from something; and quiescence, where the will is in some sense “off”, neither assenting nor dissenting. Given this tripartite division, she continues as follows:

…suppose the following theology story to be the case. (1) God is constantly offering grace to every human being in such a way that if a person doesn’t refuse that grace, she receives it and it produces in her the will of faith. (2) Normal adult human beings in a post-Fall condition who are not converted or in the process of being converted refuse grace continually, even if they are not aware of doing so. (3) Ceasing to refuse grace is accompanied by an understanding that grace will follow and that grace would not follow if the refusal of grace were continued. (4) It is solely up to a human person whether or not she refuses grace. A person who ceases to refuse grace in these circumstances is thus in some respects analogous to a person suffering an allergic reaction who actively refuses an injection of an antidote to the allergen, perhaps out of a hysterical fear of needles. Such a person might not be able to bring himself to will that the doctor give him the injection. If the doctor were asking him whether he would accept the injection, he might not be able to bring himself to say “yes,” for example. But he might nonetheless be able to stop actively refusing the injection, knowing that if he ceases to refuse it, the doctor will press it on him. In this case, whether or not he receives the injection is in his control, even if it is also true that he cannot bring himself to answer “yes” to the doctor’s request to give him the injection.

Now, on this story, the means by which the person is brought to faith is by God working in them to produce the “will of faith”. This occurs by a coordinate cooperation with God and the human, where the human will is supernaturally moved by God from a state of quiescence to a state of assenting. But, because of the setup of the situation — and particularly point (3) — this supernatural movement does not do violence to the will of the person.

Stump uses the word “grace” in the above quote, which in our present context refers to a supernatural gift from God.5 It is used primarily in regard to the process whereby someone comes to faith, but can be used for any supernatural gift from God. Now, anything that comes from his general concurrence with us would be a natural gift, since this concurrence is what constitutes our natures. Thus, grace, in this sense, is any gift from God that is given through his special concurrence with us, whether it be through accidental or coordinate cooperation.

Conclusion

While divine concurrence is the linchpin of our proposal for divine providence, it is not the whole story. In this post we have fleshed out that story, by exploring how God concurs with creatures that are limited in all sorts of ways. We have also seen that to some extent God can work beyond these limitations by means of special concurrence, although doing so without frustrating our natures brings its own set of constraints. While much more would need to be said about grace to get a complete picture of divine providence, what we have so far should be sufficient for what lies ahead, namely comparing our proposal to other views commonly held today.


  1. In the case of living things we’ve seen before that every activity is disposed toward an end, and the activities of life in living things are in particular ordered inward so as to make them self-perfective. Human life is just a special case of this, which we’ve also discussed before. More generally, the real identity of a thing’s nature and its disposition toward an end is discussed by Aristotle in book two of his Physics, and we’ve discussed it briefly in section 2.2 here. It can also be seen as a consequence of what a form is, namely the determination of something to one of a variety of alternatives, which in the case of substantial forms will be the natural ends of that thing.↩︎
  2. Lonergan argues that this sort of premotion is the properly-Thomistic form, and furthermore that for Aquinas divine application is an intended premotion.↩︎
  3. I suppose we could also consider God’s cooperation with artifice, but what is unique about God is his ability to cooperate with nature, so we restrict ourselves to this for our discussion here.↩︎
  4. These can be found, respectively, in her papers Hardening of the Heart, and Frankfurt’s Concept of Free Will and Augustine on Free Will. The latter paper actually contains both examples of the kinds we mention here, but the former paper also includes a discussion where God’s aid is in helping someone remain in their sin.↩︎
  5. I have discussed in a previous post what I think grace primarily means in Pauline theology. I have no problem with it having a different, and more technical, meaning in systematic and philosophical theology, so long as we endeavor not to confuse these two with one another.↩︎