About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Book Review: Helen Beebee et al., The Oxford Handbook of Causation

Helen Beebee, Christopher Hitchcock and Peter Menzies (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Causation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

I am grateful to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy.

Causation; or causality, if you prefer. No matter how one refers to the causal concept, arguably it remains one of the most troublesome ever to plague the mind of humanity. My own confrontations with causation occur whenever the theological notion of secondary causation enters the limelight. It’s a notion that I find incoherent, despite its pedigree. However, whenever I re-read Thomas Aquinas or his modern-day champions on providence or divine action, I almost convince myself that I’ve neglected something so obviously vital that my crusade against the conceptuality of primary and secondary causation is doomed to failure from the start.

The problem is that causation is an ambiguous concept that admits no consensus on what it means. Even the swiftest flick through The Oxford Handbook of Causation indicates that there is no uniformity of the term’s employment, not least because each academic discipline appropriates the concept in its own particular way(s). Indeed, the seventh and final section of this large volume (almost 800 pages) surveys causation as it appears in a number of different fields, ranging from classical mechanics to biology, social sciences and law.

The Handbook opens by outlining the history of the causal concept from the ancient Greeks to the advent of quantum mechanics. It was this section in particular that I wanted to read, as I had yet to discover an overview of how the concept of causation developed through and over time. Despite its title, Sarah Broadie’s chapter on the ancient Greeks disappointingly focuses on Aristotle almost to the neglect of anyone else. By contrast, subsequent chapters on the Medievals, the Early Moderns and the Logical Empiricists feature a variety of characters while sifting through the relevant material. Chapters devoted to Hume and Kant complete the opening section.

The second and third sections analyse approaches to causation, both standard and alternative. Standard approaches include regularity theories, counterfactual theories, and agency and interventionist theories; alternative approaches take in causal powers ontology, anti-reductionist stances and causal modelling. These two sections contain a total of ten papers on different approaches to causation, which testifies to the ambiguity of the term and the phenomena (assuming, of course, that causation is truly a phenomenon) it encapsulates. Indeed, at least two of the scholars contributing to these sections – Stathis Psillos (p. 154) and Peter Godfrey-Smith (Chapter 16) – suggest causal plurality as a way forward. Generally, each of these chapters is concerned with mundane causation, of the way in which causes function at the level of the world itself.

Sections four and five deal with the metaphysics and epistemology of causation, focussing on the nature and objects of causal relations and their application to reality, and on how our beliefs about causation are formed and justified. The sixth section addresses the use of causation in philosophical enterprises, as theories about mental causation, free will, ethics, perception and so on are examined. Each of these three sections contains much of worth for those exploring more explicitly theological issues, but I suspect that some of the chapters will admit their relevance more freely than others. (There is a final, seventh section, which I mentioned earlier.)

On the whole, The Oxford Handbook of Causation is a fine read, although, as might be expected, the quality of the papers varies from one to the other. Most pleasing to me, the Handbook suggests that the concept of causation is not something that can be employed without careful consideration of the precise formulation to be used. In my opinion, those interested in studying mundane causation will most benefit from this volume; but anyone researching the doctrine of providence or divine action should at the very least browse its pages for insight and inspiration.

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