Monday, September 14, 2009

Theoremata Scoti, Pars V

Part five of Bl. Duns Scotus' Theoremata is a kind of deconstruction of natural theology. In it he attempts to find the fundamental principles upon which natural theology rests and shows how the whole edifice comes tumbling down if those principles are not sufficiently rigorously established.

The context in which we should understand this part seems to me to be clarified by a remark Allan Wolter makes in the Preface to his edition of Scotus' De primo principio, namely that this latter work "may be the most carefully thought out attempt of any schoolman to prove the existence of God within the epistemic norms for demonstration laid down in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics." Anyone familiar with that work will appreciate the justice of that remark, as well as the nature of Scotus' project in proving God's existence and attributes. For the subtle doctor is not satisfied with providing "reasons" to accept God's existence or "ways" by which it can be proved; he wants to provide a really rigorous demonstration, one which if properly grasped will give the human mind certain knowledge.

The fifth part here is jumbled. It is clearly divided into three parts, but the parts seem to have been mixed up, with the apparent beginning only coming in around paragraph 70 in the critical edition, and the final third seeming to be put first. Paragraph 70 is where I start.

Assumption 1: In essentially ordered things one must posit a first, which is unique in that ordered series, and cotemporal with it.

Assumption 2: There is an essential order in every kind of cause.

These are called "assumptions" here, because the ability to prove them is precisely what is called into doubt in this part, although it is on these principles that, for Scotus, natural theology--knowledge about God which cam be proved from natural things and insofar as he is the cause of things known to us--rests. Of course they are not "assumptions" for Scotus absolutely, because he spends a lot of time in other works trying to prove them. But here he says, "These two propositions are assumed, of which the first has three parts [i.e. that God is 1) first, 2) unique, 3) cotemporal with his creation], [but] the second is simple. But although either of these parts, namely 'first', 'unique', [and 'cotemporal'], may be probable, still it would be difficult or perhaps impossible for us to prove it simpliciter by necessary argument and by purely natural [reason]."

Conclusion 1: In the genus of efficient cause one must posit a unique first efficient [cause], which exists now in the nature of things.

This follows from the two assumptions, and this cause is called God.

Conclusion 2: Every efficient [cause] is more perfect than its effect or equally perfect, because nothing acts to a greater extent than it is in act.

Conclusion 3: God is more perfect than every effect.

From Conclusions 1 and 2. If God is the cause of everything else he must be at least as perfect as everything else.

Corollary: And so [God] is the most perfect of all and the highest in every difference of being, which simply implies a perfection, among which are one, true, good, necessary etc., because whatever is such is simply a perfection in some way . . . Put here the boundary of wha tis knowable about God by natural necessary reason; and this is supposing those first two assumptions.

This is classic scotism, showing that natural theology is developed by showing that God must contain in a supereminent way all pure perfections. But the conclusions are only as solid as the ground they're built on, and Scotus now begins to explore the difficulty with providing true demonstrations of natural theology's foundations.

How can the first part of the first [assumption] be proved, namely [that God is] "first" more in essentially ordered causes than [in] accidentally [ordered ones] [since in accidentally ordered causes there is no first cause simpliciter]? How can the second part by proved, [that God is] "unique"? How can it be proved [that God is] "cotemporal?

A primary difficulty that Scotus brings up here is how can it be proved by demonstrative arguments that the God who created the world--the temporally "first" cause--is the same as the principle which stands at the head of the chain of essentially ordered causes in the world now? How do you prove that the creaturely order of secondary causes need to be conserved in being by the first cause, even after their initial creation? Scotus sees that the Big Bang does not prove that God exists now, but only that there was an first cause in the sense of an initial one. Our impulse, of course, is to appeal to God's eternity or immutability, but if the foundations of natural theology haven't been secured yet, we can't appeal to its posterior conclusions. And if we can't prove that the initial cause is identical with whatever is the current "first" [in the ontological, not the temporal sense], then what happens to our natural certainty that God is "one" and "unique"?

The second assumption does not seem to be proved necessarily. For if many effects are so coordinated among themselves, so that none of them has the character of an effect with respect to another--as with a cow and an ass--why are all causes so ordered, that the first [in one causal chain] is always the cause of another [causal chain]? If this name "God" is given to some numerically identical first efficient [cause], it follows from this that it cannot be proved that God exists in the real world now, because if he no longer existed the coordination [of causes in the world] would remain through another [first cause, another God] univocal with him.

Again, remember that Scotus has not yet made his argument for the incompossibility of two first causes, because in this work the conceptual apparatus with which to do so hasn't been developed yet. From comments he makes later on it seems that what Scotus is showing what kinds of problems a thinker proceeding along Aristotelian lines, with principles and arguments from the Physics, is going to run into.

Beyond this, Scotus continues, the second assumption does not prove that any God exists, even a new one like the first, if it cannot be proved that conservation of the created order is needed as much as the original act of creation. Otherwise we can only conclude that a first cause is necessary for the world's becoming, not for its being. Whence it follows only that either exists or did exist once, as from a house it can be proved that a builder exists or did exist once.

Therefore these things, which it seems cannot be proved by necessary arguments from merely natural [reason], are laid out in order in the conclusions, as well as some others which cannot be proved.

That is, if these primary propositions of natural theology turn out to be unprovable, so are whatever less know propositions which follow from them and depend on them.

I omit any detailed discussion of the rest of Part V, in which Scotus lays out the "unprovable" conclusions systematically. It's rather horrible reading, a kind of anti-Contra Gentiles in which Scotus insists at great length that unless he who builds metaphysical systems builds his house upon the rock, he labors in vain that builds it.

In any case, the problems that he lays out here are not solved here. The reader must go to the De primo principio or other theological writings to see how Scotus deals with them. As I said yesterday, what seems to emerge is that the Theoremata is a kind of testing-ground where Scotus is working out the consequences of different approaches before giving them a more authoritative treatment elsewhere.


Scott Williams said...

Quick question, Scotus says:

"Conclusion 2: Every efficient [cause] is more perfect than its effect _or equally perfect_, because nothing acts to a greater extent than it is in act.

Conclusion 3: God is more perfect than every effect."

My question has to do with the disjunctive statement 'every efficient cause is more perfect than its effect OR equally perfect. IF we accept this disjunct, then maybe God is merely equally perfect as all the efficiently produced things? But, in conclusion three, it only states the first disjunct and not the second; why is that?

Michael said...


in addition to whatever perfections he gives to his effects, God is (unlike his effects) unique and first in the essential order. As the uncaused cause God alone has the perfection of aseity.

Is that enough of an answer?

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


May I have a question?

I'm exploring certain limits -- imposed by the apparent lack of positive compelling arguments, a priori or a posteriori, depending on historical apologetics or not, for the logical possibility of the doctrine of the Trinity (one God, three divine persons) -- of arguing (compellingly) for non-zero (logical) probability of the doctrine (and of Christianity). Historically, I'm interested in the opinions of scholastics.

Suarez denies we can demosntrate by natural reason (i.e., independently of the revelation in history) that the Trinity doctrine is possible. See his Opera omnia, Vives ed., vol. I, pp. 537 and 570-1. In this Suarez explicitly opposes Scotus.

Indeed, Scotus apparently tries to demonstrate the possibility of the doctrine. Cf. his Opera omnia, Vived ed., vol. VIII, pp. 503-5.

My question: ibid., on p. 503, the editor highlights the passage: "Scot. 5 Met. Quaest. 1. in Theor. § non potest probari."



Vlastimil Vohánka said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vlastimil Vohánka said...

(Above, I provided a link to the Suarez vol. and a link to the passage in Scotus.)

Michael Sullivan said...

Hello Vlastimil,

You've come to the right place. The passage in question is here in Theoremata part V; in the critical edition in Opera Philosophica it's paragraphs 13-33.

As the present post makes clear, I think that the passage doesn't represent Scotus' actual opinion, but a working out of the consequences of different approaches. Given that certain assumptions remain unproved or unestablished, then we can't prove the possibility of the teachings of faith.

Michael Sullivan said...

Also, I don't know of any place you can find it online.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


Online in an old Latin font at Hard to read. I found it through the precious site of Sydney Penner.

Ah, I would appreciate a translation, too.

Anyway, I recall Heidegger wrote his dissertation on Theoremata. And that Gilson was persuaded by the internal evidence that they really are by Scotus. There are some doubts on this, of course. Thomas Williams (in The Camb. Comp. to Scotus) prefers the non-authorship. I don't know what is the current consensus, though. It may well be growing in favor of the authorship.

Lee Faber said...


Thomas William's introduction is almost completely out of date at this point, at least as far as the Parisian writings are concerned.

Heidegger did his diss. on the (spurious) speculative grammar and the genuine commentary on the categories.

The Theoremata is genuine. The mss. attribute it to Scotus, and it is cited by early Scotists such as Petrus Thomae (1320's) and John the Canon (1330's). The proof can be found in the intro to the critical edition.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


So Heidegger's diss. is not on Theoremata?

In his SEP entry on Scotus, Williams reports the recent critical ed. of Scotus includes Theoremata.

Michael Sullivan said...


yes, the edition I'm working with is the recent critical Opera Philosophica; the Theoremata is in volume 2. Here's the translation you asked for: in this edition the passage is on pages 636-8. I'll mark the paragraph numbers.

* * *

13. Conclusion 7. A product [of a productive divine act] cannot be proved to be equal in nature [with God]. Just as a mental word is not equal in nature with the mind, nor universally is the terminus of intellection [equal] to the nature of the intelligence.

14. Conclusion 8. Nor can a production of persons in the divine essence be proved.

15. This follows directly, since such a production would be through the action of the intellect and will, according to those who posit it, for there seem to be no other internal acts [in God].

16. Conclusion 9. Nor can it be proved that the numerically one divine nature is communicable to many.

17. Whether from [the nature of] order, [so that] superior things are not more communicable. Or from the preceding, for it would be communicated by those sorts of productions [i.e. of intellect and will].

18. Conclusion 10. Nor can the circumincession of persons be proved.

19. This follows directly, since that [circumincession] is on account of the unity of the essence together with the distinction [of persons].

20. It cannot be proved that, if it were communicated, the divine essence would only be communicated in two modes. . . .

22. It cannot be proved that the essence is communicated by only three . . . .

24. It cannot be proved that there is only a trinity of persons in God . . . .

* * *

You get the idea.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


Thanks so much! Really useful.

Michael Sullivan said...

You're very welcome.