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OCCASIONALISM . [This entry deals specifically with Islamic occasionalism.]

The adjective occasional, as applied to causes or events, is used by medieval European theologians such as Thomas Aquinas to mean an "indirect cause which determines any disposition to any effect" (Summa theologiae 1.114.3,,,, et passim ). In modern philosophy, the term occasional and its derivatives are used by Cartesians such as Malebranche (d. 1715), Guelincks (d. 1669), and Cordemoy (d. 1685) to refer to the relations between the modifications of mind and those of body, as well as to natural occurrences in general. Malebranche in particular denies any necessary connection between those two classes of modifications and refers all natural occurrences, human actions, and other events to God's direct intervention, of which the manifest or natural causes are nothing but the "occasions" (Entretien sur la métaphysique 7.11, 7.13).

In the history of Islamic theology (kalām ), an "occasionalist" tendency is clearly discernible from the eighth century on. The earliest writers on theological questions, such as al-Ashʿarīand his followers, were overwhelmed with the Qurʾanic concept of God "who is unlike anything else" (surah 42:11) and whose decrees are irreversible and inscrutable. Accordingly, they attempted to formulate a cosmological view that would justify the referral of all activity or development in the world to this God, whom they called the "Lord of the worlds" and the "Lord of the heavens and the earth."

By the eighth century the Muslim theologians (mutakallimūn ) realized that Aristotelian physics, which presupposes a necessary connection between natural events or entities, is incompatible with the concept of God's lordship or sovereignty in the world. In its place they proposed a more theologically acceptable metaphysics of atoms and accidents in which every entity or event comes into being and passes away at the behest of God. According to this metaphysics, probably derived from Greek (Democritean) sources with certain Indian modifications, everything in the world is made up of substance and accident. The majority of the mutakallimūn define substance (jawhar ) as that which bears the accidents, although some argue that this is the specific characteristic of body. Substance and accident, however, always exist in conjunction. Some accidents are more primary than others and include the "modes" or original properties of unity, motion, rest, composition, and location. A body can never be divested of these accidents, although it can be divested of the other "secondary" accidents, such as weight and shape. Most of the later mutakallimūn appear to have held that no substance can be divested of the accident of color, so that they define substance as "anything endowed with color."

The most characteristic feature of substance is its indivisibility; hence the majority of the mutakallimun identify substance with the atom (juzʾ ) and dwell on its relation to the primary and secondary accidents. Thirty positive accidents, or their opposites, are said to inhere in each substance. When God wishes to create an entity, by "commanding" it to be (as the Qurʾān has put it), he first creates the atoms, then the accidents making up its physical or biological nature or character. But since accidents cannot endure for two moments of time, as a leading Ashʿarī theologian of the tenth century, al-Bāqillānī, put it, this entity will not continue to exist unless God constantly recreates the atoms and accidents it is made of. This theory of "continuous recreation" (Macdonald, 1927) constitutes the basis of Islamic cosmology and moral theology, especially in its Ashʿarī form. It presupposes, in addition to the duality of atom and accident, the atomic composition of time and that of the soul. Should God decide to put an end to the existence of a particular entity, the theory requires that he either cease to recreate the "accident of duration" in it (the Muʿtazilī view) or simply stop recreating the stream of atoms and accidents making it up (the Ashʿarī view), whereupon the particular entity would cease to exist at all.

This theory had its critics in subsequent centuries, the most important and vocal of whom was probably the great Aristotelian commentator, Ibn Rushd (Averroës) of Cordova (d. 1198). In general it might be said that the theologians were sympathetic to the occasionalist view of the universe or some aspects of it, whereas the philosophers as a rule were either hostile or critical.

See Also

Descartes, René; Scholasticism.


One of the earlier studies of Islamic occasionalism and its theological implications is D. B. Macdonald's "Continuous Recreation and Atomic Time in Muslim Scholastic Theology," Isis 9 (1927): 326344. The standard work on Islamic atomism continues to be Salomon Pines's Beiträge zur Islamischen Atomenlehre (Berlin, 1936). My Islamic Occasionalism and Its Critique by Averroës and Aquinas (London, 1958) deals in a preliminary way with the implications of occasionalism for the struggle between the theologians and the philosophers. Max Horten's Die philosophischen Systeme der spekulativen Theologen im Islam (Bonn, 1912) includes a discussion of Islamic occasionalism and atomic theory. Moses Maimonides' summary in the Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Salomon Pines (Chicago, 1963), should also be consulted for the major propositions of kalām and their occasionalist significance.

Majid Fakhry (1987)


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A philosophical doctrine with implications in both metaphysics and epistemology. In metaphysics, occasionalism teaches that there is no causal interaction between beingstheir contiguity merely serves as the occasion for the causal influx of God; He is the only true cause. In epistemology, occasionalism teaches that the senses perceive regular sequences of events but that they do not perceive any causal interaction between these events. Thus the intellect, whose truth is measured by the evidence of the senses, can draw the conclusion that event B follows event A, but not that event B is caused by event A. One cannot, therefore, say with certitude whether there is present in nature a causal influx among beings. One cannot know whether things are causes. A metaphysical occasionalist denies that there are true causes; an epistemological occasionalist denies that man can know them. It is as a metaphysics that occasionalism is usually treated (see causality).

History. The main points in the historical development of occasionalism can be discussed in terms of its role in Arabian philosophy and in the teachings of William of Ockham, Nicolas Malebranche, and David Hume.

Arabian Philosophy. When the Muslims were introduced to the of philosophy of Aristotle during the 9th century, there soon arose a conflict between this philosophy and some of their basic religious beliefs (see arabian philosophy). Aristotle taught that natures are self-contained centers of activity with substantial stability and permanence. This view seemed irreconcilable with the Islamic religious belief in the absolute power and creative activity of God. For the universe of Aristotle was sealed off from the direct, immediate, and all-pervasive power of God. Rejecting Aristotle, some Muslims fashioned a world more in keeping with their religious beliefs. According to these thinkers, known as Mutakallims, the universe is composed of discontinuous atoms; these are indivisible particles devoid of magnitude but completely homogeneous, and they are continuously created by God, who can create or annihilate them at will. No atom endures for two moments of time; each is created at every instant. God's causal efficacy as regards these atoms, and therefore all created things, is both absolute and exclusive. Atoms do nothing. But God wills the regular patterns man observes in the universe. For example, when a white garment is placed in black dye, God creates the corresponding atoms of blackness in the garment. And the same is true of all apparent human activity. Thus when a man is said to move a pen, this is the result of the direct intervention of God who creates four simultaneous accidents: the will-act of the man to move the pen; the power to move it; the movement of the hand; and the actual movement of the pen. The regular sequence of events are merely the willed occasions for God's causality.

Ockham. The occasionalism in the thought of william of ockham may be summed up as follows. By the very fact that it is, an individual can be only itself and nothing more. Each existent is absolutely and irreducibly singular. Thus there are no relations among things. For a relation would be something that two things had in common. And since causality, as an objective factor of nature, would be a relation of dependence of one thing upon another, man can never demonstrate that one thing is the cause of another. He has only the empirical presence of sequenced events, and these he calls causes and effects. The only thing that he can affirm with certitude is that, on the occasion of this regular and repetitive sequence, the mind acquires the habit of thinking that one event really causes another. The irreducible singularity and self-identity of Ockham's existent makes any inferential transfer by the intellect to the supreme, uncaused being of God philosophically impossible. (see nominalism; ockhamism.)

Malebranche. Like the Muslim Mutakallims before him, it was in defense of religion and the divine power that Nicolas malebranche, a Catholic priest and member of the French Oratory, taught that there is only one true cause, and it is God. This fervent and pious philosopher was convinced that the chief cause of idolatry was man's tendency to attribute to natural powers, like the sun or the rivers, the causal source of the life and fertility in the world. Malebranche held that a true cause must know not only what it does but how it does it. When a man moves his hand, he cannot tell how he does it. So he cannot be the true cause of this motion. He is only, says Malebranche, the occasional cause; the true cause, and only true cause, is God.

The occasionalism of Malebranche seems often more nominal than real. In traditional doctrine, God is said to be the first uncaused cause; it is maintained also that all other causes can cause only in actual and continued dependence upon the divine power (see causality, divine). At times it seems that Malebranche's occasional causes fit the definition of a true finite cause, in the sense that they are not mere passive occasions. For example, Malebranche will admit that, when one moves one's hand, one does something. This is especially true in his treatment of an act of free choice. The act is personal, and the one placing it is responsible for it; this could not be the case if one were merely a passive occasion for God to make (cause) the choice. But Malebranche's definition of a true cause is unacceptable, as demanding too much. (see cartesianism.)

Hume. The doctrine of David hume is similar to Ockham's. Ockham denied relations, and hence the relation of being a cause, because of his teaching on the irreducible singularity and self-identity of the existent. Hume denied causality because it is an unknowable fact. Nothing is in the intellect unless it is also somehow in the senses. Hume interpreted this to mean that what a man cannot sense has no meaning for his intellect. All that a man senses is a regular and repetitive sequence of events; he does not sense any causal power affecting these events. Causality is simply the anticipation of this sequence by the mind, an anticipation that has been engendered by habit. Hume was an occasionalist in the sense that he considered sequences of events to be the occasion for the engendering of the habit of anticipating their regularity, which man calls causality. (see empiricism.)

Philosophical Implications. The principal philosophical implications of occasionalism are those relating to the existence of God and the freedom of the human will.

Existence of God. The only valid demonstration in philosophy for the existence of God would be an intellectually seen inference from the beings of man's experience to their causal source. To deny the possibility of man's ever knowing whether causality is an objective truth actually bearing upon the being of things is to deny the possibility of an inference, intellectually grasped, of a causal source. To deny the principle of causality is to cut off any way to demonstrate the knowability of the existence of a First Cause. Occasionalism in epistemology means agnosticism in natural theology.

Freedom of the Will. If one holds in his metaphysics that only God is a true cause and creatures only the occasions on which God exercises His causality, the consequences are logically devastating for created beings. For if creatures do nothing (and what else could a mere occasion mean?), they have no end; they are not for anything, and so have no reason for being. In a word, occasionalism makes of a being a contradiction in terms. It also logically destroys free will; for if a person is not the true cause of his free actions, he can hardly be said to be the cause of why they are free. In a word, causality and being are so closely connected (causality is the exercise of being), that to empty creatures of their causality is to empty them of their being.

See Also: efficient causality; instrumental causality; metaphysics, validity of.

Bibliography: f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 1946); v.4, Descartes to Leibniz (1958). r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 2:33638. f. ueberweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. k. praechter et al., 5 v. (11th, 12th ed. Berlin 192328) 3:26169, 663664. j. latour, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 7:112325. a. del noce, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:97480. m. fakhry, Islamic Occasionalism and Its Critiques by Averroës and Aquinas (London 1958). m. gueroult, Malebranche, v.2.2. L'Ordre et l'occasionalisme (Paris 1959).

[m. r. holloway]


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Occasionalism. The view that God is the direct creator by way of cause of all occasions (as held, e.g., by some Muslims); or that God is the occasioning intermediary between soul and body: when the soul consents to an action, God moves the body, and when the body makes a demand of any sort, God makes the soul aware of it.