Occasionalism: A Brief Introduction

 When we watch a movie, we think that we see a stream of continuous movement of some object. For instance, we might perceive a car racing across the screen; that is, a single object, which is moving for a certain period of time. Nevertheless, the reality is completely different from this appearance. We are confronted with a series of frames, which are separated from each other by thin black strips. When we watch a movie, we are bombarded with 24 of these frames per second. Due to the quick succession of images, we are not be able to distinguish the different frames in this discontinuous series, and so we perceive them continuously, as if there is just one car moving over time rather than many different pictures of it, succeeding one another.

Our inability to perceive the distinct frames in movies immediately raises the question as to whether the universe is perceived in the same incomplete way by us. Do the objects in the universe have their own independent existence and causal powers, or are they constantly sustained and created?

One account of Moses recalls him wondering about God, and requesting Gabriel  arranges a meeting with God for him. Gabriel comes with a message that God will disclose Himself to Moses at midnight, but that Moses must wait for Him with two glasses of water in his hands. Moses prepares his glasses and begins to wait for God. As midnight approaches, Moses briefly falls asleep. In that moment the glasses fall to the ground and the resulting sound wakes him from his sleep. Then Gabriel comes to him and relates the following message of God: “I am with you always and with all beings. If I cease to apply My power just for a moment, everything will crash, and the order will disappear, just as your glasses fell and shattered.”

There are different views on the scope of God’s relation to the universe, ranging from a denial of all divine presence, to the occasionalist view that we consider, that each and every moment of being is intensely maintained by the direct intervention of God.  With such a range of views on this matter, can we justify the belief that God constantly sustains the universe, as the story suggests?

The idea that God’s creative activity is continuous in the universe is known as “continuous creation.” However, there are different versions of this doctrine. One view is put forth by St. Augustine, who proposes that the universe is constantly sustained by divine power, but does not rule out the possibility that each being also has its own power to produce something by the help of divine power. In fact, ascribing causal power to creatures, in addition to the continuous divine activity, became a very popular view among the medieval Scholastics. A well-known explication of this view is known as “concurrentism,” which states that particular events are produced by divine power and the power of finite beings together.

On the other hand, continuous creation may be interpreted in a way that denies the ascription of any causal power to finite beings. This is known as “occasionalism.” According to this view, everything is created only by God at each moment, and no finite being has a causal role in creation. In other words, God is the sole causal agent. This doctrine was formulated first by the Ash’arite tradition in Islamic kalam, was echoed among the Cartesians, the philosophers who follow Descartes, and famously articulated by Malebranche. In what follows, I will present the basic tenets of occasionalism as worked out by these two different traditions. I will establish that this theory does not deny the logical-rational truths and the moral responsibility of human beings, and will further demonstrate that the adoption of this view leads to a spiritual life and encourages scientific activity.

 Occasionalism in Islamic Kalam

The Ash’arite tradition in Islamic kalam was the first school to embrace occasionalism consistently. In the Ash’arite cosmology, the universe can be analyzed in terms of two main categories: the category of substance and that of accident. An accident can be simply regarded as a property, and a substance is the thing to which properties are attributed.

Substances are usually identified with indivisible particles (atoms). Atoms are homogeneous, and their diversity in nature appears as a result of the heterogeneity of accidents inhered in these substance-atoms. Accidents are considered to be perishable by their nature. No accident can endure but perishes in the second-instant of its coming to be if God does not recreate it in its substance.[1] This is the crucial point in support of occasionalism. Accidents cannot exist by themselves and the atoms which need accidents to exist cannot exist by themselves either. All atoms and accidents need the power of God in order to exist and subsist over time.

In Ash’arite metaphysics, it is not the case that God can create anything, no matter what it may be. There are some cases which do not fall under the extension of divine power. It is absurd that substances can exist without accidents and there is no rationality in saying that God can create a substance without accident. Logically contradictory cases are also excluded from the scope of divine power.[2] In other words, to posit logically contradictory propositions such as “God can create round squares” is a category mistake, like saying that number 2 is green. Numbers are not the things to which the color predicates apply, because color-predicates have a certain range or extension of applicability which excludes numbers. On the other hand, the properties of “being odd” or “being even” apply to numbers, but not to material objects; to state that the chair one sits in is even is another category mistake.

So, each predicate has a certain extension to which this predicate legitimately applies. Things or expressions which are not in the scope (extension) of a certain predicate lead to a category mistake if they are associated with this predicate. Thus, the sentence “God cannot do something” includes a category mistake if that thing in question includes a contradiction, because contradictory cases are not within the scope of divine power.

In brief, the general features of the Ash’arite cosmology present a discontinuous universe which depends on God’s creative power to exist and subsist at each moment. Furthermore, it does not consider cases of absurdities to be possible or relevant with respect to creation.

Later, al-Ghazali focuses on the apparent causal relations between events, arguing that the causal relation between any two events can be justified neither logically nor by experience. Let us consider the following example he gives, where fire and a piece of cotton are found together, and the cotton is burned. A piece of cotton and fire cannot have a logically necessary relation between themselves because we can think of one event without the other, which does not lead to any contradiction. Nor can observation justify that the burning of the cotton is a necessary causal effect of fire, because we observe only that the fire and burnt cotton appear together, and not the fire causing the burning.[3] Al-Ghazali’s point here is that correlations do not imply causal relations, as David Hume would similarly affirm six hundered years later.

The metaphysics of occasionalism does not deny that human beings are free in their choices or that they are responsible for what they do. The Ash’arites suggest the following formula with respect to human acts: human beings acquire (kasb) their acts while God creates (khalq) these acts. Al-Maturidi clarifies the nature of this acquisition by considering human choice as its ground. The thesis that God is the only causal agent in the universe provoked discussion as to whether or not human choice is caused by human beings. If human choice is caused by human beings, then occasionalism is rejected, because in that case, humans have causal power together with God. If God creates human choices, then human beings cannot be held responsible for their choices simply because they are not their own choices.

Sadr-us Sharia and later Ibn Humam offer an ingenious solution to this problem by denying that human choice falls under the scope of divine power. In their view, human choice is a relational and relative matter that appears between the inclination and the action. For instance, assume that I have a desire to drink water. I choose to drink it and then take a glass of water and perform the action. My choice is a relational matter between my desire to drink water and the act of drinking it. Relations are not things that have definite existence. Spatial orientation is an example of this.  My pen is on the right side of my tea cup from a certain perspective, but on the left side from another. Even though my pen and my tea cup have definite existence, the relations of rightness and leftness which appear between them do not. Relations are relative matters, and because of that they are not genuine objects to which divine power is applicable. In other words, human choice as a relational matter is not under the scope of any kind of power. As a result, it would be a category mistake to say that human choice is caused or created.[4]

Although humans are responsible for their choices, everything besides their choices comes from God. Al-Ghazali puts this maxim into the foundation of his Sufism. The fundamental aim of Sufism is the spiritual development of human beings. In al-Ghazali’s understanding, one attains such spiritual development by regarding everything as coming from God, and disregarding all mediation and causes. The latter is necessary because only in that way can people be rid of the compulsion to obey their own desires, and of anything created by seeing that anything besides God is impotent. A person who has such an understanding of the world does not become angry with anyone, and feels no animosity towards others, because he knows that God is the real cause behind everything that happens.[5] Thus, for a Sufi, all things which are good or bad from the perspective of ordinary people, become signs from God that show him how to improve his character, when correctly interpreted.

Occasionalism in the West: Malebranche and the Cartesian Tradition 

Malebrache, as a follower of Descartes, accepts the basic principles of Cartesian metaphysics and inherits the problems of Descartes. Cartesian philosophers struggled to find answers to the questions of the nature of causality and the relation of body to mind.  Although Malebrache’s occasionalism can be considered a response to such questions, it is also a well-formed systematic theory developed as a result of his theological concerns.

As far as his theological motivation is concerned, Malebranche concludes that a belief in secondary causality, that is, ascribing causal power to beings other than God, leads to paganism. For Malebranche, if we are under the control of a power belonging to a natural being, then we should serve it, based on the principle of St. Augustine that whatever truly acts upon us, it is above us, and inferior things serve superior things. As a result, he denies any causal efficacy in the created realm.[6]

Malebranche’s doctrine is called “occasionalism” because God creates events not arbitrarily, but in a regular manner where certain natural events are “occasions” for God’s creation of certain effects. What people ordinarily call “causes” or “natural powers” are in fact “occasional causes” from this perspective, in the sense that they are describing the uniformity of God’s operation in the world, and providing us with an ordered system of created nature.[7] If we again consider al-Ghazali’s example, we can say that the existence of fire near a piece of cotton is the occasional cause for God’s burning of that cotton. Because of the emphasis on occasional causes, occasionalists do not rule out scientific activity; on the contrary, they encourage it. In their view, scientists are looking for the secret and hidden occasional causes and try to understand how God operates on earth.

 God is the only true cause having genuine causal power. According to Malebranche’s analysis of true causation, there is a necessary link between a true cause and its effect. A necessary link holds only between the will of an infinitely perfect being and some effect.[8] This is the reason why only God can be regarded as a true cause: any event or effect needs an absolute power to become existent. It is impossible for finite beings to cause anything at all. That is to say, the two types of finite beings of the Cartesian metaphysics, namely bodies and minds, are causally inefficacious.

Malebrache accepts Descartes’s characterization of bodies and minds. Bodies are essentially extended substances, minds are thinking substances. Malebranche thinks that observation or sense experience leads us to imagine a causal link between two interacting bodies, such as when one ball hits another. He holds that reason corrects sensation, and he demonstrates the truth about the inefficacy of the balls in question by reflecting upon their passive nature and God as the only true cause and motor force of motion.[9]

Minds are also causally inert. However, people have free will which renders them responsible for their acts. Malebranche abstains from ascribing causal power to the human will by saying “I do not know if that can be called power.”[10] He does not offer a detailed account like that of Sadr or Ibn Humam regarding the question of how people can be free without having causal powers of their own. Nevertheless, his occasionalism offers a good solution to the mind-body problem which plagued Descartes and many Cartesians. This problem is quite complicated because mind and body are postulated as two completely distinct substances having nothing in common. How, then, can they interact, for instance when we feel pain upon cutting our hands, or when we move a chair should we desire to do so? Malebranche resolves this problem by claiming that every state of mind and body is created by God in accordance with each other. It is God who creates the desire to drink water and again God who moves our arms without any causal influence between the mind and the body, creating the action of drinking water. Simply speaking, the role of humans in such an account is to choose to actualize or ignore the intentions they have in their minds.

Malebranche comes closer to the Ash’arites in his approach to the matter of absurdities than his fellow Cartesians. Contradictions and similar absurdities are not subject to divine power and will.[11] This contention of Malebranche diverts him from the path taken by Descartes because the latter allows that God could have changed logico-mathematical laws.[12] Malebranche rejects this view and excludes logico-mathematical contradictions from the scope of divine power altogether.


For many people, the idea that the universe is constantly created and controlled only by divine power is difficult to accept. Common sense suggests a more naturalistic explanation of the universe, where everything has its own power and role in the whole system. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that what we perceive to be “common sense” misleads us sometimes if we recall our inability to perceive movie frames. The schema of reality is more complicated than the appearance. Occasionalism presents one of those complicated but reasonable schemata. It is interesting to see that this explanation has been advocated in common by both Muslim and Christian philosophers. There are many parallels between Malebanche and the Muslim philosophers on this issue. I have tried to demonstrate the basics of their respective approaches in this paper. In addition, I have suggested how occasionalism as presented by those thinkers has encompassing implications on the human life on the issues of freedom and moral responsibility, spiritual development, and scientific activity.

Nazif Muhtaroglu

This essay is a revised version of “An Occasionalist Picture of the Universe” published in Fountain Magazine (issue: 84, 2011)


[1] Majid Fakhry, Islamic Occasionalism and its Critique by Averroes and Aquinas, (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1958), pp. 38-48.

[2] For more details, Majid Fakhry, Islamic Occasionalism…, pp. 50-55  & Al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Taha>fut al-Fala>sifa), A parallel English-Arabic text, ed. and tr. by M. Marmura, (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1997), p.179

[3] Al-Ghazali,The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Taha>fut al-Fala>sifa), A parallel English-Arabic text, ed. and tr. by M. Marmura, (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1997), 17th Discussion, pp. 170-181

[4] For more details, see Nazif Muhtaroglu, “An Occasionalist Defence of Free Will” in Classic Issues in Islamic Philosophy and Theology Today, ed. by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, and Nazif Muhtaroglu, (Dordecht: Springer, 2010), pp. 45-63

[5] Al-Ghazali, Ihya al-Ulum al-Din, vol. I, (Cairo, 1957), p. 23

[6] Nicholas Malebranche, The Search After Truth, ed. and tr. by Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 446-7

[7] Ibid., p. 448

[8] Ibid., p. 450

[9] Ibid., p. 660

[10] Ibid., p. 449

[11] Ibid., pp. 615, 620

[12] Descartes, Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol: III, John Cottingham and Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch and Anthony Kenny (Tr.s) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Letter to Mersenne, 27 May 1630, p. 25 and Letter to Mersenne, 15 April 1630, p. 23