Hugh J. McCann on God, Creatures, and Secondary Causality

On the recommendation of Zachary Manis, I ordered through ILL Creation and the Sovereignty of God by Hugh J. McCann. McCann is retired Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University. This book addresses a topic in which I am very interested, but I only have time and energy at the moment to give it a quick perusal. Perhaps someday before the Second Coming I’ll have the opportunity to borrow it again from the library. 

But while I do not have time to give the book a proper reading, I can provide a few citations from the the book that some of my readers might find of interest. McCann is trained in analytic philosophy, but he has also read Thomas Aquinas. It makes for a substantive mix.

Divine Creation and Creaturely Causality

In the collision between cue ball and object ball, acceleration is not produced ex nihilo; rather, energy flows from the cue ball to the object ball, and the latter’s absorbing that energy just is the event of its accelerating. Similarly, when the moon moves between the sun and the earth, the flow of solar energy from the sun to the earth is blocked. This does not produce an eclipse; it is an eclipse, which we observe as a darkening of the sun. And when flame is applied to a container of water, the transfer of kinetic energy from it to the water is the water’s heating. In each case, what stands out is not the creation of anything new, but the preservation and transformation of what already exists. … Once it is understood in this way, the problems associated with secondary causation dissolve. There is no conflict between such causation and God as creator, for he alone is responsible for the existence of things. God both creates and sustains mass/energy not just as a kind of raw stuff, but in its actual distribution through the universe throughout time. His creative activity is responsible not just for the existence of the cue ball and object ball, but also for the existence of their dynamic states: he creates the energy that constitutes the cue ball’s momentum, and creates it as belonging to the cue ball. He also sustains that energy in existence throughout its transfer to the object ball. In so doing, God creates the states of increasing velocity that accrue to the object ball in the transfer, and so creates the process which is the object ball’s acceleration. Yet the natural powers of these entities are left intact, for the cue ball really does operate on the object ball. The one strikes the other and confers momentum on it, in the sense that the cue ball’s momentum is transferred to the object ball in the collision. Thus, while God confers existence on the event which is the object ball’s acceleration, it is still the cue ball that accelerates the object ball, and so drives the object ball into a pocket. … God is not a physical entity, and so does not, in the physical sense, impart energy to anything. Rather, he creates both the cue ball and the object ball in their energetic states. (pp. 39-40)

* * *

It is possible, then, to have an account of secondary causation that accords natural substances real powers and natures, without treating the past as conferring existence on the future. Hence there is no competition between secondary causes and God’s creative action. God can be responsible for the existence of all, even though the products of the creation genuinely interact and exert real influence upon each other. There is, however, an additional dimension to be considered. The illusion that God and secondary causes are in competition arises not just from our misunderstanding natural causation, but also from our misrepresenting the nature of God’s activity as creator, and the relation of ourselves as creatures to him as the source of our being. Usually, creation is construed as an instance of precisely the model of event-causation I have been at pains to criticize. God is conceived as a temporal being, who at one or another point in everlasting history issues a mental command—‘Fiat lux,’ let us say—and this event in turn generates ex nihilo the intended effect—in this case, the appearance of light. The same applies to all of God’s activities as creator. There is an exercise of will, and that event is portrayed as conferring existence on the commanded effect, pretty much as an instance of what we mistakenly take to be ‘normal’ event causation. The upshot of this construal is, of course, disastrous. Once it is realized that God’s activity as creator must extend to all that exists, the inevitable appearance is that of a thoroughgoing competition between primary and secondary causation. There are always two sets of conditions, one divine and one worldly, each sufficient in itself to confer existence upon whatever occurs—and the struggle against occasionalism commences. …

But then how should we think of creation, and what does it mean to say that God creates the world outright, or directly? It means, I think, what the Genesis narrative implies: that the existence of creatures belongs to God’s act of creating them, rather than being a consequence of it. One good model for this is the relation between acts of will and their content. Consider, for example, the case of deciding. When I decide to do something—say, to go to Europe next summer—the intention thereby formed does not appear as a consequence of my act of decision making. It is, rather, the content of my decision, so that by the time the decision is over, I already hold the intention to go to Europe. The intention, which can be expressed as, “I shall go to Europe next summer,” is intrinsic to my act of deciding to go there. It belongs to it, in the peculiar way that content always belongs to acts of thinking. What I want to suggest is that the relation between God’s activity as creator and the entities is analogous to this. It is not, of course, the same: the content of mental acts has only mental existence, whereas the things God creates are quite real. Nevertheless, I want to say, creatures belong to God’s act of creation in much the same way. We are not products of God’s creative willing, but the very expression of it.

If something like this is correct, the gap between creation and creature is closed. There is no distance whatever between us and God, hence we need not invent a causative process or nexus to fill the imagined void. Yet we are not made parts of God, or descriptive modifications of him—any more than the content of a thought would be a part or a predicate of a thinker. Rather, the relation is analogous to that between a story and its author or a song and its composer. The world has its existence in God, but God is in no way composed or constituted by the world. A second upshot of this view is that any remaining vestiges of conflict between God’s activity as creator and the operation of secondary causes is wiped away. They are not even the same sort of process. God’s creative activity is not a determining condition of the being of the world, but an endeavor in which he himself serves as the foundation of reality, the source in which we live, and move, and have our being. (pp. 43-45)

(Go to “Divine Agency and Human Freedom”)

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