A Summer Experience: God, Occasionalism and the Third Term

While I was revisiting Marcuse last summer, I was fortunate to have extra time to accommodate a personal game of metaphysics. A certain Bruce Lee, in fact threw me a question I couldn’t resist taking on. Obviously, I am not talking of the real Bruce Lee; truth is whether there was a real one I am not sure anymore. Between TV and reality, there is only the couch. And so, with the speed of a kung fu, he asked me if I can reconcile St. Thomas with Daoism, and needless to say, I was amazed at his capacity to defamiliarize a scorching summer afternoon, as if throwing a cold water on my face. This guy is the real Bruce Lee. For an unexplainable aspect even on this part of my association game (identifying his mental (was it?) acts with Bruce Lee’s martial prowess), I rushed to my metaphysical boardroom (there’s no way I could tell how many came and who I was conjuring up to parley with) and started to prepare my answer. He was out for a KFC chicken when I got back with my answer.

The question, in other words, is: Is it possible to reconcile a philosophy that appeals to transcendence with practically a non-philosophy (strictly, where philosophy is not invoked) whose notion of transcendence, if at all, is always already given in the immanence it promotes as the practical ground of the real?

Now you are in my boardroom. Let me continue 

If we will choose to reconcile transcendence and immanence in a more general setting, we will need a third term which could structurally unite the two terms whose unity is under consideration here. The third term might be found to be intrinsic to each of the two terms though in some sense repressed, or it might be after all extrinsic to them. On the one hand, the unity of transcendence and immanence may be said to be a taken for granted fact; on the other hand, we can have a unity only if occasioned by an outside force which is neither transcendent nor immanent. The latter case is familiar to Western philosophy.

We are referring to occasionalism which invokes an external causality seeming to lack the constancy of intention to settle the disputations of immanence across the physical and spiritual dimensions of life. The famous occasionalist statement that it is not fire that burns the cotton, rather it is God can however be repaired to recast our option in favor of an external form of causality that is neither transcendent nor immanent, assuming that each position basically requires an intention. If we can demonstrate that this externality does not possess the intention intrinsic to a determinate position (transcendence or immanence), then we may have obtained the perfect recipe for unity. In other words, we need to demonstrate that the unity is not borne by any interest. But first, we need to prove that a basic form of occasionalism pervades the two determinate positions without actually being a part of either position as to warrant an accommodation of causality in the occasional form we have given to this possibility of unity. What we mean here is simple: the unity is neither taken for granted nor anticipated; rather, it comes, arrives without rhyme or reason.

First, how can it be demonstrated vis-à-vis the Thomistic notion of truth? Is there an occasional form of causality that we can identify in Thomism? Is there something of the sort comparable to an arrival of truth in Thomism caused by a lack of intention on the part of that which causes our participation in the intrinsic process of truth? A Thomist would readily dispute our initial questions here. God is not an occasionalist. He does not lack the intention as Creator. The presence of reason meanwhile guarantees that this intention is accessible (in immanence) in the form of partaking in the divine will. It is in fact reason that takes the place of the constancy of intention of God that guarantees that no occasional form of causation can ever take place. Reason therefore must constantly work. It will never run out of conditions against which it must work on behalf of God, for reason by virtue of the constancy of its intention will never finish its work until God makes His appearance. Reason will never know, nonetheless, when God will do so. This is the principle of indeterminacy that gives to God, alas, the occasional form that is discouraged by doctrinal Thomism.

In Thomism there is nothing outside the realm of rational participation in the divine will until the divine wills that reason grind to a halt (such as the case of Thomas when he stopped writing after God appeared to Him). Here, there are consequences to bear. Recall that St. Thomas insists that truth is adequation (between the intellect and the thing). The adequation holds until God wills that reason stop working. In the will of God, truth ceases to be an adequation. But no reason can divine the will of God. Reason must therefore leave it to occasionalism, to the principle of indeterminacy to explain (even so, an explanation that does not explain) why God would will Himself to make an appearance. Beyond the capability of reason to explain lies the opportunity of the occasionalist. And why would God appear to reason? Occasionalism has no answer (that is the answer) except it is in the will of God to will His appearance.

At this point, let us proceed to Daoism as quickly as we can get. In fact, it is not difficult to detect the occasionalist in the Dao. It is said that in the Dao, one lets reality come to you, one never seeks reality. The Dao is the so-called Yin/Yang, complementary forces, so to speak. Yet, this time, rather than the principle of indeterminacy that we briefly explored in Thomism, the Dao is governed by complementarity, similar to a particular strand of quantum physics developed by Niels Bohr. In naïve terms, the principle of complementarity states that there are various approaches to observing reality but one can observe reality only when other approaches are isolated to give preference to one approach. The preference for one approach does not necessarily make the other approaches invalid. The thing is it is physically impossible to do all approaches. Compare this principle to a Daoist saying: “When truth intent does not scatter, yin and yang naturally harmonise.”

From all indications, however, our comparison between the Dao and the complementarity theory of quantum physics seems to stabilise the standpoint of human observation (immanence). By human observation in quantum terms we also mean not scattering the intent of truth in Daoist terms. Here, the crucial index of comparison is intention which is immanent as against the lack of intention of transcendence (as we discussed in Thomism). In Daoism, intention is a key element in understanding reality, whereas in Thomism, intention in the final analysis gives way to the occasionalism of a more universal will. Earlier, we argued that intention should be discounted as an index of unity (of transcendence and immanence). Intention has to give way to a neutral standpoint, neither transcendent nor immanent. In the case of Daoism and quantum physics, intention is a privileged standpoint. If this is so, then, according to our scheme, the yin and yang of Daoism do not satisfy the occasionalism of truth. Occasionalism proposes that the unity of transcendence and immanence must not be borne by interest. The unifier must lack constancy of intention which the principle of complementarity does not satisfy. But, alas, quantum physics tells us that the universe is a superposition rather than a constancy of intention.

As a superposition of different subatomic particles (which makes the universe a wave if seen from a distance), the universe does not have a unified intention. Rather, it is composed of varying standpoints, each may be seen differently from the others (assuming that one particular standpoint is capable of escaping the superposition which is theoretically possible when one begins to observe reality during which time something is released from a superposition: recall here that subatomic particles behave as wave when unobserved [meaning, a kind of observation by the naked eye] and as particles when observed [meaning, with sophisticated instruments) yet side by side are indifferent to one another. Only from an outside vantage point can they be observed seemingly to be a wave functioning reality with all the appearances of unity in terms of undisturbed propagation. In other words, when observed from within reality functions as a particle which is theoretically the true dimension of the real. Here, truth means a particle observing a wave phenomenon which is nonetheless internally also a particle.

It pays to correlate this quantum reality to another saying in Daoism: “When you understand the method of bringing sense to stabilise essence/The human mentality does not arise and the mind of the Tao is complete.” The stability of essence (or depth of reality in terms of particle) is dependent on the correct method of making sense of reality as wave. In the principle of complementarity, the correct understanding of the method is not to utilize all available methods. Even so, understanding in this context requires that mentality does not assert itself or exercise its will to escape from the superposition in order to stabilise reality. By staying within the superposition, one maintains the upkeep of the universe as a wave. Daoism says: “Bathe and incubate/Do not let thoughts arise/Do no let attention scatter.” As a complement of occasionalism, Daoism teaches us to be a non-intending particle (in which one does not scatter his attention in order to be noticed) in whose quietism the universe allows to be seen as a wave, as a unity of transcendence and immanence.

Theoretically, a particle can be seen by another particle, provided that that which observes is not scattering its intent or attention, meaning, it too must not choose to observe and be observed. In other words, in quantum physics a particle cannot choose another particle to observe it. One never seeks (a wave) reality.

At this point, arguably, we have found the third term (in both Thomism and Daoism) that will unite transcendence and immanence, or the reverse complement: we have found the occasional form of unity that will unite Thomism and Daoism. On the part of the third term, the occasional unity is a quantum leap.


And Bruce Lee? I guess he never felt so hungry.


Postscript (The best part of summer)

Two welcome reliefs from ‘Bruce Lee’ courtesy of one of my all-time favorites, Sophie Hunger:




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