In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Occasionalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Robert Boyle
  • René Descartes
  • George Berkeley
  • David Hume
  • Jonathan Edwards

Philosophy Occasionalism
Walter Ott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0173


Occasionalism is the doctrine that God is the only true cause. What appear to be causes in the natural world—a lightning strike that sets off a forest fire, for example—are only “occasions” for God to act. Such natural events are merely correlated, not causally connected. The same holds true for human action: One’s desire to move one’s arm toward the chocolate ice cream is only an occasion for God to move one’s arm. Such a view seems outlandish, at best a historical curiosity. Since the modern period, occasionalism has been dismissed as an ad hoc answer to the Cartesian problem of interaction: If minds are not physical things, how can they act on bodies? Occasionalism simply denies that there is any interaction at all, hence the problem is dissolved. But in fact, occasionalism antedates the Cartesian problematic by many centuries. And even in the modern period, its real motivations have more to do with the nature of divine creation and causation itself than with the problem of interaction. While occasionalism has few adherents today, its rejection of genuine causal connections in the sublunary world was an important source for the views of David Hume in the 18th century and David Lewis in the 20th.

General Overviews

Perler and Rudolph 2000 is the only book-length, comprehensive treatment of occasionalism from the medievals to the moderns. The only comprehensive overviews of occasionalism in English are online encyclopedia entries, such as Lee 2008 and Jordan 2011. Clatterbaugh 1998 covers the arguments and positions on causation in general during the modern period. Nadler 2011 focuses on the Cartesians, while Nadler 2000 is devoted to Nicolas Malebranche. Freddoso 1988 is an indispensable guide to the connections among medieval and modern occasionalisms.

  • Clatterbaugh, Kenneth. The Causation Debate in Modern Philosophy: 1637–1739. New York: Routledge, 1998.

    Clatterbaugh provides a helpful sketch of the broader causation debate in the period and includes a chapter on occasionalism (pp. 97–128). Its chief merit in this context is the way it places modern occasionalism within its historical background and shows how it came to be a reasonable response to the Cartesian problematic.

  • Freddoso, Alfredo. “Medieval Aristotelianism and the Case against Secondary Causation in Nature.” In Divine and Human Action: Essays in the Metaphysics of Theism. Edited by Thomas V. Morris. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

    Freddoso finds the origin of early modern occasionalism in medieval Augustinian views that challenge the Aristotelian picture of nature. He isolates three kinds of occasionalism (the no-action, no-essence, and no-nature theories) and argues that the no-nature theory is the most formidable opponent to Aristotelianism.

  • Jordan, Jason. “Occasionalism.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. Martin: University of Tennessee at Martin, 2011.

    A very clear treatment of occasionalism, with a useful catalogue of arguments in its favor.

  • Lee, Sukjae. “Occasionalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2008.

    Lee offers a thorough discussion of occasionalism, including its sources in Islamic and medieval Christian thought.

  • Nadler, Steven. Occasionalism: Causation among the Cartesians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    This collection of Nadler’s papers is an important resource, especially as it includes several postscripts that reply to critics.

  • Nadler, Steven, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Malebranche. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Devoted to the work of the most famous modern occasionalist, this volume includes helpful discussions of the major issues that arise within occasionalism, such as free will and the problem of evil.

  • Perler, Dominik, and Ulrich Rudolph. Occasionalismus: Theorien der Kausalität im arabisch-islamischen und im europäischen Denken. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000.

    Perler and Rudolph’s work splits its attention fairly evenly between Islamic and Christian occasionalism.

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