Does occasionalism collapse into pantheism?

Averroes (d. 1198), I think, has a sound argument that it does.  The context is his Long Commentary (ed. Bouyges, Beirut: 1990) on Aristotle’s Metaphysics IX.3, where Aristotle is addressing the Megarian thesis that there are no inactive potencies i.e., powers or abilities to do stuff. Averroes describes that thesis as follows (ibid., 9.5.5, 1126) :

[Aristotle] said “and among people, e.g., the Megarians, is someone who holds that potency is only with the act (al-quwwa ‘inda al-fi’l faqat)”. He means that among people is one who denies the existence of a potency temporally prior to the thing for which it is a potentiality (yankaru wujud al-quwwa al-mutaqqadima ‘ala al-shay’ al-ladhi hiya quwwiyya ‘alayhi) and states that the potency and the thing for which the potentiality exists exist at the same time (ma’an). […].

Having stated the thesis, Averroes then makes the interesting observation (ibid.,) that:

This claim is now adopted (yantahilu) by the Ash’arites from among the people of our religion. And it is a doctrine opposed to (mukhalif) the natures of human beings.

The Ash’arite theologians, of course, were occasionalists. In claiming that they accept the above view, Averroes is implying that the Ash’arite  doctrine that only God has causal power means, not simply that nothing else does, but that nothing else does before it actually does something. Asha’rite occasionalism, then, presupposes (at least something like) the Megarian thesis that potency and act only exist simultaneously.  Granted that, The Commentator (as the Latins used to call him) then adduces the following argument to show that Ash’arism is a pantheism of sorts (ibid., 9.7.7, 1135-1136):

As for the people of our time, [i.e., Ash’arite theologians], they set a single agent, without mediation, for all the actions of existents, which is God the exalted. It follows for them that not a single existent has its own specific act which God impressed upon it. But if existents do not have acts that specify them, they will not have specific essences (dhawat); for acts are differentiated only by the diversity of essences. And if essences are eliminated, then names and definitions are eliminated, and that which exists (al-mawjud) comes to be one thing. This view is a view that is exceedingly alien to the natures of human beings.

A lot could be said about the argument. But the main lesson of it is this: the way something behaves or acts indicates the kind of thing it is. On this basis, the sort of thing x is will be different from the sort of thing y is. But if nothing has its own specific behavior, nothing will really have its own specific identity either. If x has no proper acts of its own, Averroes is asking, why would you think it’s a distinct type of being from anything else? At this point, either everything, at bottom, will be everything else or, what comes to the same thing, everything will be one thing (and vice versa). And though Averroes doesn’t explicitly say it, this one thing which is the only thing that exists will be God – since it is only God, on the Ash’arite view, that has power and acts of His own. And that’s just pantheism.

There you have it then: by Averroes’ reckoning, a view that is “contrary to human nature” (=occasionalism) ends up in one that is even more “extremely foreign” to it (=pantheism).


One thought on “Does occasionalism collapse into pantheism?

  1. Asalamu ‘Alaykum,

    If (for the sake of argument) X’s accidents were really what distinguishes X from Y, then X is distinguished from Y because those accidents subsist within X… not because X created those accidents. Therefore, God ﷻ being the creator of X’s accidents, does not remove this distinction (between X and Y), since the fact remains that those accidents subsist within X.

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