A causal mechanism for divine action

by Arlyn Culwick


A form of special divine action often considered central to the everyday experience of Christianity is that of a personal interaction with God. For example, Pinsent (2012) characterises this interaction in terms of mutually empathic relations that serve to “infuse” virtues and other attributes into a person. Such interaction requires that causal relations exist between a necessary being and the contingent universe. This paper addresses a central problem of special divine action: that the empirically identifiable causes of physical events are modally ill-suited for (and epistemically distinct from) the action of an immutable, non-composite, necessary being.

Accounts of what brings about physical events are standardly empirical accounts, grounded upon sensorial experience. In contrast, accounts of how God acts are standardly non-empirical exercises of reason. But as a result, the causality of divine action bears no clear relation to the empirical causal modes that function to bring about an event which God somehow also causes. Yet if God acts and a physical event results, this requires their being connected by some causal relation indifferent to the modal status of its relata. To solve this problem I make an (empirical) distinction between material and merely intelligible mind-independent being. From this develops an account of a novel type of causality which is as empirically observable as it is amenable to speculative reason, particularly sacramental and Trinitarian theology. 

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Presented on 15 July at the Ian Ramsey Centre‘s 2014 conference in Oxford, part of the Special Divine Action Project.


Note to the reader:

This is a short paper intended to promote discussion and further thinking, rather than to present an argument exhaustively. In order to facilitate this, it is written with an absolute minimum of technical terminology, and in a simple, direct style.

If I were to advance an ethics of scholarly presentation, I would struggle to reconcile the merit of facilitating maximum engagement with a topic and the merit of perfect scholarly rigour and completeness. The two are at least partially opposed and must be held in tension. The former is favoured here, and to that end I hope to minimise the need for background knowledge of the subject and make use of thought experiments wherever possible, so that for the most part the reader simply needs to think with me, to test out my observations themselves, and either come to the same conclusions, or disagree.


From the earliest days of Christianity until today, there is an idea at its core that might be described as “embodiment” – which is that things can participate in other things, that they take on, or share the essence of other things. It is an idea borne out in the Trinitarian doctrine that Christ is not just a symbol of the Father, but is God. It is at the heart of the narrative of the Eucharist, and is perhaps most expressly preserved today in the sacrament of communion (however convoluted and disputed one’s model of communion may be). The Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his celebrated book of sacramental theology For the Life of the World, articulates succinctly this ancient and contemporary vision of a world and a humanity pervaded, shot through, with God’s nature, not simply symbolically but in an embodied way:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of… both receiving the world from God and offering it to God – and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in… communion with [God]. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.[i]

As you can observe, Schmemann’s vision is of a universe continually transformed from being merely “in itself” to being ordered to God. However, the philosophical tradition lacks a systematic and rigorous model of embodiment.

At odds with this notion is – if you’d permit a sweeping generalisation – the philosophically modern era. Perhaps the grounding and central thread of this era is not embodiment but a quest – so far a hapless one – for some kind of absolute ground for reality and experience, something non-mediated, non-relative, but simply itself. The “matter” that Schmemann refers to is, under a modern rationale, considered in itself, not considered as embodying God and in principle anything at all too.

It is against the backdrop of this impetus in modern thought that divine action has come to seem a problem, since if nature is not thought to be pervasively embodying and embodied, then modernity is, in principle, hostile to the idea of it “embodying” God. This is a case of the contest being lost at the very start, not in the final analysis.

So to my mind the question of how special divine action might be made to feel at home in our worldview is effectively a matter of asserting that we need to adjust our worldview. But the adjustment is single: entertain the notion of embodiment as basic. However the philosophical ramifications of this change will be radical, and at odds with the philosophical doctrines at the foundation of the modern era, namely nominalism and its attendant “problem of the external world,” plus the Scotistic “univocity of being” as opposed to a doctrine of analogy.

What kind of causality would suffice to explain special divine action?

So much for speaking at a highly general level; on to the details. Special divine action is an interaction that requires causal relations to exist between a necessary being and the contingent universe. What sort of cause could operate in the material, temporal, contingent, empirical world, yet also be consistent with the action of a nonmaterial, eternal, necessary being? For a human being to experience second-personal relationship with God, or for God to alter anything in one’s life – or in general for us to experience special divine action at all – the effect of God’s action would be an empirical one. Yet God’s acting would not be empirical. It would not be temporal. It would not be material. What sort of causal mechanism could accommodate such a categorical difference between cause and effect? A suitable mechanism would have to be indifferent to the ontological status of its terms.


In this paper I will develop a sketch of a causal mechanism entirely indifferent to the ontological status of its terms. In order to do so, I will need to first establish that relative being is not a mere nominalism, but quite ubiquitously mind-independent. Building upon this, I’ll discuss the nature of representation, and then of signification. Finally I’ll summarise how the resulting process or mechanism is useful for modelling divine action.

Consider two things, one of which is taller than the other. It is not necessary for anyone to be aware of this fact for it to be the case. If there was a universe with only one spatial dimension (“height”) and only two things in it of different height, neither of which have minds, then one thing would be taller than another thing.

Taller-than-ness is a mind-independently existing relation. It is not material. It is not a “thing”. Yet it is real. It is experienceable empirically. And it is purely relative.


The case of taller-than-ness may demonstrate the reality of mind-independent relative being, but does not suggest an obvious species of causation; neither does it make obvious the sort of effect relations have when actualised in some mind-independent situation. To draw out the type of causality operational in relative being, another thought experiment will be necessary.

A rock breaks free from a cliff and falls downward. On the way down it dashes itself upon the cliff-face, marking it. Now it just so happens that the mark looks precisely like the letter “R”, so that it would found a relation of R-ness with a person who could recognise it as an “R”. However it also forms relations of other kinds:

  • The falling rock unearths minerals previously beneath the surface of the cliff-face that are food for bacteria, whence arises the relation “being-food.”
  • The mark alters the reflection and absorption of light falling on it, changing the energy levels of the photons in the air in front of the mark. This actualises a relation between it and the air (which is, alas, a little hard to name).
  • The mark could also cause someone to receive the message “God says go to Russia,” thus forming the relation “sign-from-God-ness” between it and its experienced sign-vehicle.

Recognised R-ness as an actually existing relation

By now you’ve probably anticipated that there is no end of relations of this sort. They form, in infinite number, the instant something comes to be. However within this infinite uberty[ii] there is a clear difference between the relation arising when an actual person recognises the mark as the letter R, and the relation whereby the mark simply is the shape of an “R,” without anyone recognising it. When the mark is currently being recognised as an “R”, a currently existing R-ness relation is actualised between a person and the mark. However when it is not currently being recognised, this sort of relation does not exist.

Unrecognised R-ness as a mind-independent attribute

However this is not to say that the unrecognised “R” has no relations of R-ness. For the fact remains that the letter R has, by nature, a certain shape, and that the mark has, mind-independently, this shape. So the mark, even when unrecognised, has the attribute of R-ness even though it is not currently supporting a further relation of R-ness with a perceiver.

Abstraction layers

This distinction between a thing having an attribute, and that attribute founding a further relation between itself and another attribute (in this case a person’s ability to read), deserves some investigation. To begin with, I have been ambiguous between the letter “R” as a physical shape and “R” as a letter with a function in a language. The function depends upon the shape in order for it to be recognised; however the function is logically independent of the shape, since one could, by convention, simply replace the shape of “R” with any other shape, and have it serve the same purpose. I propose to use the concept of an “abstraction layer[iii] (borrowed from computer science) in order to articulate the difference between the two. An example of an abstraction layer is that when you use your mobile phone, you don’t enter lines of code; you just press buttons on the screen. This is the result of base-level code being interpreted in terms of a function or “purpose,” which then determines some higher level screen-tapping. Screen-tapping of course utilises the base-level code, but it further orders it toward your purposes. In the same way, the “R” function in language operates at a layer of abstraction above that of the “R” mark, ordering mere physical marks toward the purpose of communication.

“Transcendental” relations

Let’s now give some attention to what type of relation the unrecognised mark is. Bear in mind, however, that the logical function performed by a human recognising the physical mark as a language-function mark is identical for our purposes to that of bacteria using the physical mark as food; in both cases, the physical mark does not function as such, but is “interpreted” according to purposes external to itself, and is thus acted upon at a layer of abstraction higher than its physical properties. In either case, the concern, for now, is with the physical mark and not any function it might have.

The physical mark has attributes, such as having a certain shape, being composed of certain minerals, and being certain distances from other things. These attributes are physical, or mind-independently real (though not always material). And these attributes are indefinite (and perhaps truly infinite) in number. Regardless of whether anyone or anything recognises, makes use of, or in general forms any higher-level relation with an attribute, the attribute is real. Such attributes, nowadays often called “properties” of objects, were in Latin times called “transcendental” relations.[iv][v] They are not pure relations like “taller-than-ness” since they are attributes of a subject. Their process of being is to abstract a generality (for example, a certain kind of shape, here the shape of the letter “R”) from the totality of the subject, so that in virtue of the attribute the subject becomes relative to the general entity. It is in this respect that attributes are relations.

Actuality, potentiality, and virtuality

It may seem odd that an attribute is a process, or that it has an action at all, since attributes appear rather static. Is it not rather the action of thinking that abstracts an attribute from an object? Isn’t the object itself removed from this process? Well, yes, perhaps, except that it is not necessary that thinking or perceiving to occur for an attribute to be realised. For example, bacteria do not think, and yet they actualise the attribute of food-ness in the mark. A tree fifty metres away from the mark actualises the attribute of being-fifty-metres-away with no perceiver involved. In other words, there is an action involved in actualising attributes; it is that of making a generality an attribute of a subject. And if it is an action, then causation is involved.

I propose that (logically speaking) “before” any attribute is actualised in a subject, there is a pure, infinite array of potential attributes. In order for an attribute to become actualised there needs to be something that relates to the subject in the requisite respect (like a tree being the requisite distance away from the mark for the attribute “50-metres-away” to be actualised). This, of course, results in an indefinite number of attributes being actualised in the subject. The number might be infinite, but it is not the same grade of infinity present in the pure possibility of potential attributes in itself; it is limited – infinitely – by the specific circumstances of the universe (i.e. spatiality, temporality, gravity, and so forth). Finally there is a third modality for relations, which is when an attribute comes to signify something to something else, at which point there is an effect– causing, at the very least, a further relation that comes to exist currently and in fact.

As an example of this, consider the mark’s attribute of being fifty metres away from a certain tree: this attribute may be completely arbitrary or irrelevant to everything until the tree becomes a marker to someone wishing to measure their steps while hiking. At this point the attribute has an effect: it grounds a signification. In such a state it is a sign actually, before which it was only a sign virtually. Thus there are three modalities for relations: potential, virtual, and actual.


To recap: when the mark’s attribute of being fifty metres away from a certain tree has an effect then the attribute is now functioning at a layer of abstraction higher than its mere physical existence. It is also sustaining a further relation – of signification – between itself and another attribute and the attribute is thereby ordered toward the purposes of the hiker.

Sign-action is experienced intellectively, and is thus amenable to speculative reasoning about divine action

I’ve taken pains to emphasise how sign-action is nonmaterial yet empirically real, and this makes it suitable to modelling how physical events are brought about. In contrast, accounts of how God acts are standardly speculative exercises of reason. For sign-action to be an acceptable model for divine action it would need to be compatible with the action not only of the physical universe but also of a necessary being, nonmaterial, eternal, and non-empirically discussed.

Consider the case of taller-than-ness. As a relation, it is grasped not perceptually but intellectively; in order to experience taller-than-ness one must abstract height from at least two objects and then compare their heights. This is not a sensory experience but an intellective one, and the formal object of an intellective experience is an idea. But if relations are directly experienced by intellection rather than by sensation, then they are of the same experiential category as the concepts by which God is conceived of and divine action is modelled. Both sign-action and God are experienced intellectively. Therefore, sign-action is quite at home in purely speculative exercises of reason about a necessary being that is beyond sensory or perceptual experience.

Sign-action is eminently suitable to describing God and divine action. God speaks the universe into being. God as Trinity is subsisting relations. Christ is “the exact representation of [the Father’s] being”[vi] (to almost quote Hebrews). And Christ is God embodied in human form. It boggles the mind that nobody’s ever done this before!

How do we experience special divine action then?

When I read Andrew Pinsent’s masterful work on the virtues, The Second-Person Perspective in Aquinas’s Ethics,[vii] I came away with a resounding question. The subject of the book is intimate second-personal relation with God which serves to “infuse” virtues and other attributes into a person. Such relation is specifically personal, thus a case of special, not general, divine action. The question I was left with was “well how do we relate to God? – how is the connection established and how do we observe, understand, or know that it’s real?”

The answer I propose here is that second-personal relation is not achieved through transmission of energy, matter, or even the active supplying of information – and definitely not by violating any laws of nature! – but rather simply through the grounding of sign-relations in attributes of the universe (or of our internal experience). It is though such attributes, real yet nonmaterial, that events can come to support experiences of relating to God. It is through our experiencing these attributes in requisite ways that second-personal sign-relations are established upon these attributes. Finally these second-personal relations have, as intrinsic properties, the virtues Pinsent elaborates.


Signification is a matter of something functioning as something else to a third entity. When you see a stop sign, it does not function as a metal octagon, it functions to notify you to stop. As such, the being of a stop sign is embodied in the metal octagon. Another example: consider a glass of water. Pick it up, drink from it, use it. You’re interacting only with signs – relations founded upon a sensory-perceptual process and terminating in the thing itself that corresponds to what you experience truly to be a glass of water. But though the signs comprise mere mediated experience (as opposed to the direct knowledge that a necessary being would have), the mediation is nonetheless (a) your only and total experience of the glass, and (b) a stable semiosis that has matured to the point of accurately modelling the object’s nature for your purposes and thus accurately presenting it to you. Because of (b) your semiosis is a good model (for the purposes you have) of the glass in itself. Because of (a), there’s nothing to alienate your semiosis from your understanding of the glass in itself. But to say (a) and (b) is just what it means for a sign to participate in the nature of its object. After all, the sign really does present real properties of its object to you. Thus, its nature is what the object’s nature (partially) is. Therefore, to the extent that a sign shares the nature of its object, it participates in its object. And it does so by functioning as a mediator between the object and your “interpretants” (that is, whatever you use to experience the object).

But this – a logical model to undergird embodiment – is just the sort of thing required to found a philosophical account of the sacramental theology of Schmemann or the Trinitarian Christology of the Church Fathers. By utilising an abstraction layer, sign-action or “semiosis” allows things to participate in other things – in potentially any respect. Therefore under a semiosic model there is no impediment to the idea that the universe embodies God’s nature and that any particular event or entity is pervaded by God’s nature. Furthermore this is not just the case mind-dependently, but, as shown above, is also the case mind-independently whenever an attribute, the function performed by an attribute, or the entity to which the function is ordered, is mind-independent. Thus, I hope that an embodied, lived, personal interaction with God through all things can hereby be seriously entertained.

Autobiographical statement

Arlyn Culwick is an independent researcher in analytical philosophy based in Oxford. His research interests include the action of signs, the ontology of relations, teleology, autopoetic systems and the nature of significance. These topics combine in a causal model of sign action or “semiosis” with sound empirical and novel metaphysical implications.


[i]   (Schmemann, 1973, p. 15)

[ii]   ‘Uberty’ (pub. 10.12.12-17:50). Quote in M. Bergman & S. Paavola (Eds.), The Commens Dictionary: Peirce’s Terms in His Own Words. New Edition. Retrieved from http://www.commens.org/dictionary/entry/quote-letters-f-woods.

[iii] Abstraction layer. (n.d.) Computer Desktop Encyclopedia. (1981-2013). Retrieved July 13 2014 from http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/abstraction+layer

[iv] “To memorialise Aristotle’s unwelcome realisation that even those types of being which are not [pure] relations [pure relations being those whose whole being consists in a reference or being-toward another, e.g. taller-than-ness]… are yet relative [both] in their existence and in their possibilities for being explained, the medievals after Boethius circulated a distinct name, relation secundum dici, “relation according to the requirements of discourse about being”. There is then a profound sense of relativity in medieval discourse which applies to every category of accident as a subjective characteristic and to substance itself as the subject of existence… [T]hey later also called this sense of relation, which applies to the explanation of the whole of nature, relation transcendentalis (transcendental relation), after the qualification “transcendental” became the accepted medieval term for any notion that applies to more than one category.” – Deely, J. Four Ages of Understanding, 2001, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, p. 228-9.

[v]   Deely, J. Four Ages of Understanding, 2001, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, p. 228-9

[vi] Hebrews 1:3, New International Version, Zondervan.

[vii] 2012, Routledge: New York.