Saturday, June 5, 2010


In an interesting post "Paradoxicon" discusses Aquinas and Scotus on God's infinity. He gives the following passage from Aquinas' Summa theologiae Q.7 a.1:

We must consider therefore that a thing is called infinite because it is not finite. Now matter is in a way made finite by form, and the form by matter. Matter indeed is made finite by form, inasmuch as matter, before it receives its form, is in potentiality to many forms; but on receiving a form, it is terminated by that one. Again, form is made finite by matter, inasmuch as form, considered in itself, is common to many; but when received in matter, the form is determined to this one particular thing. Now matter is perfected by the form by which it is made finite; therefore infinite as attributed to matter, has the nature of something imperfect; for it is as it were formless matter. On the other hand, form is not made perfect by matter, but rather is contracted by matter; and hence the infinite, regarded on the part of the form not determined by matter, has the nature of something perfect. Now being is the most formal of all things, as appears from what is shown above (4, 1, Objection 3). Since therefore the divine being is not a being received in anything, but He is His own subsistent being as was shown above (Question 3, Article 4), it is clear that God Himself is infinite and perfect.”

Then the following from Scotus' De primo principio c.4:

Finally some argue to the proposed conclusion from the absence of any intrinsic cause. Since form is limited by matter, any form incapable of being in matter therefore is infinite. I do not think this argument is any good, because [its proponents] admit an angel is immaterial, but not infinite. And existence will never limit [its] essence, since they hold that it is posterior to essence. Now the intrinsic degree of perfection that any entity has is not just a vicarious possession. Furthermore, it is a fallacy of the consequent to argue that just because form is limited with reference to matter, therefore without such reference it is unlimited. [This is like arguing] one body is limited with reference to another, hence where there is no such reference a body will be infinite; hence the outermost heaven will be infinite. This is the fallacy of the Physics, Bk. III. Just as a body is first limited in itself, so too with form. Form is first limited in itself (because there is just this sort of nature among things) before it is limited by matter since the latter limitation presupposes but does not cause the first. An essence is first finite by nature, and hence is unable to be made finite by existence; hence it is not subsequently limited by existence.

Then he seems to get slightly confused. He writes:

Scotus isn’t talking about the hypothetical fallacy of affirming the consequent when he mentions the “fallacy of the consequent” (which Aristotle never directly addressed ). He means rather a violation of the rules of conversion regarding the relation of implication or (logical) dependence, described by Aristotle in the Sophistical Refutations:
"The refutation which depends upon the consequent arises because people suppose that the relation of consequence is convertible. For whenever, suppose A is, B necessarily is, they then suppose also that if B is, A necessarily is. This is also the source of the deceptions that attend opinions based on sense-perception. For people often suppose bile to be honey because honey is attended by a yellow colour: also, since after rain the ground is wet in consequence, we suppose that if the ground is wet, it has been raining; whereas that does not necessarily follow."

Paradoxicon seems to be unaware of how the scholastics used the phrase "affirming the consequent", which does not just mean "asserting a fallacious consequent, i.e., one that doesn’t follow (formally) from the premises" - in other words, a non sequitur. Rather the way Scotus argues here is regularly called "fallacy of the consequent" in mediaeval logic textbooks, for instance in Peter of Spain's Summulae logicales VII.150 et seq.

So Scotus accuses Aquinas' argument for God's infinity of "affirming the consequent" because it argues to God's infinity from his immateriality in the same way that in Aristotle's example someone argues to its having been raining because the ground is wet. Scotus accuses Aquinas of implicitly making the following argument:

A. Everything immaterial is infinite
B. God is immaterial
C. Therefore God is infinite

And getting A this way:

if something is material it is finite
Therefore if something is not material it is not finite

which is clearly fallacious. I'm not sure why Paradoxicon says that this isn't the fallacy of the consequent, though. Peter of Spain gives a precisely parallel argument to illustrate the fallacy of the consequent:

If something is a man it is an animal
Therefore if something is not a man it is not an animal

In any case, not even Aquinas believes (A), rather he believes

A1 Some immaterial thing is infinite,

as well as

A2 Some immaterial thing is finite

because angels are immaterial but not infinite. But you can't derive (C) from (B) and either (A1) or (A2).

Aquinas doesn't simply make that argument, of course, because in addition to God's immateriality he adduces the fact that God is "ipsum esse" and not received in any limiting or restricting principle. So he would say that the angels are not infinite, while God is, because angels have restricted esse while God does not. Scotus points out, though, that even according to Aquinas the essence of a creature is not restricted by esse, but rather esse is restricted by essence. Therefore the limitation of essence has to be derived from somewhere other than matter or esse, which Aquinas does not do, ergo etc.

* * *

In a comment to one of Faber's recent posts Paradoxicon, following upon the post I've just been talking about, asks "What is your take on Scotus's idea of infinity as a (positive) intrinsic mode vs. Aquinas's conception of infinity as a mere lack of (accidental?) limits? While it is easy to see that Aquinas's arguments for divine infinity in the Summa are formally invalid (as Scotus notes), it is not so easy to understand how Scotus's teaching is different from Aquinas's, regarding the concept of infinity itself. Any thoughts?"

Aquinas frequently gives me the impression that practically all of metaphysics boils down to immateriality and essence/existence. He uses these two concepts so often that in my opinion it's an unhealthy preoccupation, metaphysically speaking, because it frequently causes difficulties which could be otherwise avoided. This bit on proving God's infinity is a good example. It's not entirely fair to act as though this is all he has to say on the matter - the parallel chapter in the Contra gentiles for instance is much longer - but from Scotus' point of view the S.T. argument is pretty useless.

The first thing I would say about Scotus' approach would be to point out that in the Primo principio, a little before the quote that Paradoxicon gave, Scotus establishes God's infinity in a totally different way, without saying anything about intrinsic modes either. Scotus proves that God knows everything knowable earlier on, after showing that God is a perfect intellect. But the number of knowables is infinite, since the number of possibles is infinite and God knows everything of which he can be the cause, i.e. everything other than himself. But if God has actual simultaneous knowledge of infinites, his intellect itself must be infinite, and his intellect is identical with his nature, therefore he is infinite by nature.

So rather than proving merely a lack of a delimiting principle, as St Thomas does, Scotus proves the presence of a positive infinite in God. He has other approaches too, but this one has nothing to do with either immateriality or the essence/existence distinction. Rather only an intensively infinite and eternal being could have actual intuitive knowledge of, say, the entire series of integers at once. Contrast this with St Thomas' discussion of how God knows infinites in S.T. I q. 14 a. 11-12. First he says that God knows singulars, because he knows both the universal (immaterial!) form and the matter that he creates which he can apply the universal forms to. (What about the angels again?!) And since form can be applied to matter in an infinite number of ways, God knows infinites. This is quite different from Scotus, for whom form is singular through itself, not through matter, and so infinitely knowable not because it can be absorbed by matter in an indeterminate number of instances, but because there are an infinite number of distinct individual formal essences. The knowledge of infinites in God is not therefore merely virtual, insofar as God can produce his effects in an infinitely varied way, but actual, insofar as the number of possible producibles as distinctly present to the mind of God as an actually infinite series. I suspect then that for Aquinas God knows all the numbers because there's no multitude of things he cannot produce; whereas for Scotus God has a clear formally distinct intuitive conception of each and every integer all at once. So in S.T. I q 25 a.3 Thomas proves that God has infinite power simply because he has an infinite nature which is not delimited by anything, which is identical with his power; whereas as in the P.P Scotus shows that God's power is such that he could produce at one time an infinity of things, "if only they were able to exist simultaneously" (the inability of finite things to aggregate to infinity is a defect of the things themselves, not their cause), and so his power is intensively infinite.

I note also that in P.P. right after talking about infinity Scotus says "From infinity every type of simplicity is inferred." It is precisely the actual distinct intellection of an infinity of knowables that lets us infer that God must be absolutely simple. If God were not simple, then the distinct number of things he knows would have to aggregate, which could never happen to infinity. An infinite number of knowables cannot be grasped successively or even by instantaneous "grouping" or "collecting" or establishing a "set", but only in a single simple act which grasps each at once in its distinction from all the others. With the formal distinction divine simplicity looks really different for Scotus than it does for Aquinas.

This is pretty brief and there are a lot of deep waters here. Please nobody take this as anything but the merest first stab at the question. It's all I have time for now.


Lee Faber said...

Regarding the second part of the post, do you think there is an equivocation on infinity going on here? In his proof that God is infinite, Scotus starts with the infinity of possibiles. But this would be an infinity of discrete entities, whereas the infinity which is the intrinsic mode of the divine essence is not the same kind of infinity.

also, in the Ordinatio Scotus holds infinity is prior to and accounts for simplicity, though I don't know if that affects the argument here.

Paradoxicon said...

I appreciate the thoughtful and rigorous response to my post! I will have time for a lengthier reply soon.

I freely admit that I am not very familiar with medieval logical terminology. When Scotus mentioned "affirming the consequent" or "asserting the consequent", I thought he meant this:

If A, then B.
B, therefore A.

In fact, though, the fallacy he diagnosed was:

If A, then B.
Not A, therefore not B.

Employing modern terminology, I habitually refer to the former as "affirming the consequent" and the latter as "denying the antecedent." When Scotus referred to an example of the second fallacy as "asserting the consequent", it left me somewhat confused.

The rest of your post was very helpful...I'll post a more lengthy reply after I've had some time to think about it. I don't grasp this stuff intuitively oftentimes, so it usually takes me a little longer than most. :)

Michael Sullivan said...


possibles can't be discrete entities as they exist in God. Only because they are really but not formally identical with him (and each other) can there be an infinity of them. As Scotus argues, if they were discrete then they would have to be aggregated, but an infinite aggregate is impossible. So I don't think there's an equivocation here; but I might do another post on the subject.

also, in the Ordinatio Scotus holds infinity is prior to and accounts for simplicity, though I don't know if that affects the argument here.

I don't see why it would, since here I quote Scotus as saying that simplicity follows from infinity, although in P.P. he also establishes simplicity first.


glad you found it valuable!

Paradoxicon said...

I did find it helpful.

It's possible that I've been dwelling on the subject too long, though, because the more I think about it, the more confusing it seems.

The earlier strategy of proving the presence of a positive infinity in the divine intellect does not entail that infinity is a simple concept (since not all positive concepts are necessarily simple).

When discussing the possibility of natural knowledge of God (the context in which some of his more important statements concerning "infinite being" occur), Scotus notes that negative theology will always be parasitic on some positive concept of God, because negative concepts with positive content are not simple. Ergo:

"All negative concepts are complex", the contrapositive of which is "All non-complex [simple] concepts are non-negative [positive]". So the strategy is to prove that infinity is a simple concept, which in turn will imply that it is positive. The problem is that, once Scotus gets around to discussing the issue, it is "infinite being" rather than "infinity" that is proposed as the "simplest and most perfect" concept of God attainable by the human intellect. How do we get from "infinity" as a simple concept to "infinite being" as a simple concept if "infinite" has no intensional content?

Michael Sullivan said...

Do you have a particular text in mind?

My first thought is to say that proving that God is both infinite and simple is not the same thing as saying that we think of God's infinity with a simple concept. We may well think of a simple being by means of a complex concept.

Paradoxicon said...

The text I have in mind is Ord. I, 3, 1 (In Wolter, Philosophical Writings: A Selection, pp. 13-33).

My confusion regards the notion of "infinite being" as a simple concept, not the the properties/attributes of infinity and simplicity.

Michael Sullivan said...

I don't have the Wolter in front of me right this second, but I am looking at the Ordinatio, Vatican edition v. 3 para.58, p.40, where Scotus says Iste enim est simplicior quam conceptus entis boni, entis veri, vel aliorum similium, quia 'infinitum' non est quasi attributum vel passio entis and so forth. Is this the text you have in mind?

If so what Scotus is saying is that since infinity is not a predicate in the sense of an attribute or property, the mind doesn't reach the concept of "infinite being" by combining two concepts, but only by taking the concept of "being" and understanding it as infinitely intense, so to speak. Nothing extrinsic is being added to the concept of being, one is only determining its intrinsic grade or mode. So it's more simple than the concept of God as perfectly good or true.

I don't think this means that for Scotus the concept of an infinite being is simple absolutely, just more simple than other concepts. It's simplex but not simpliciter simplex, in Scotus' terminology. I suppose Faber can correct me if this is wrong. I forget exactly where Scotus defines simplex and simpliciter simplex concepts, but I could try to find it. I should do a better job keeping notes.

Paradoxicon said...

Yes, that the is passage I have in mind (I don't read Latin, but I do recognize the passage from the Wolter text).

To summarize what we've covered so far (primarily for my benefit):
1. (Metaphysical) Infinity is not a transcendetal attribute;
2. (Metaphysical) Infinity is an intrinsic mode;
3. (Metaphysical) Infinity is not merely/"caused" by a lack of limits;
4. (Epistemelogical) Infinity is not a negative concept;
5. (Epistemelogical) Infinite being is a "simple concept."

My question at this point is: How does Scotus "prove" that infinity is not a [transcendetal] attribute? Does this take us back to the arguments against Aquinas's position (i.e., accidents cannot explain the limits of a form, therefore the limits must be intrinsic)? Knowing why he thinks infinity is not a transcendetal would be helpful in understanding why he thinks that infinite being is a simple concept.

Thanks again for your interaction here.

Michael Sullivan said...

The short answer is that infinity can't be a transcendental because it doesn't belong to every being the way that "good" or "true" does.

The long answer is that it's not precisely accurate to say that infinity isn't a transcendental. Rather it's half of one of Scotus' famous "disjunctive transcendentals." In addition to the ordinary
"coextensive transcendentals" like "one" or "good" or "true" Scotus recognizes disjunctive transcendentals such that everything that exists falls into either one disjunct or the other, such as "posterior/prior", "possible/actual", or "cause/effect". One of these is "finite/infinite".

If you're using Wolter's "Philosophical Writings" you might also be interested in Frank and Wolter's "Duns Scotus, Metaphysician", where they talk about this in the first chapter.

Paradoxicon said...

The impression I had was that Scotus thought of infinity as a "mode" rather than a [disjunctive] transcendetal, or at least this is the interpretation Cross gives of it in "Duns Scotus on God" (in the Appendix). He suggests in the chapter on Divine Infinity that perhaps all the disjunctives are modes in this way, though he doesn't state this as a certain conclusion. If we assume that the disjunctives are on the same footing with the other transcendetals, then the treatment of infinity as the most simple concept seems rather odd.

Paradoxicon said...

I looked for Wolter's other text you mentioned. It appears to be out of print.

As an aside, I have found what appear to be several translations in the Wolter text I have. In the very passage we have been discussing, he translated "perfectior" as "less perfect", so that the passage reads: "a 'less perfect' but simpler concept of God is..." instead of "a 'more' perfect but simpler, etc." In one review I read of "Duns Scotus, Metaphysician", it was claimed that similar errors were present in that text. It would be really nice if a team of scholars put together a comprehensive translation of Scotus's extant works in some kind of multi-volume format, similar to what has been done for Aquinas's Summa & Contra Gentiles, so that those of us who don't read Latin won't have to be dependent on so many groups of 'selections'.

Paradoxicon said...

Sorry: "translations" should have been "translation errors"...please forgive this and any other typos.


Michael Sullivan said...

The impression I had was that Scotus thought of infinity as a "mode" rather than a [disjunctive] transcendetal

I don't see why it can't be both. As a mode it is distinguished against an attribute or property, because it doesn't add any new "content", and as a transcendental it (disjunctively, together with finitude) applies to everything that exists.

And again, Scotus doesn't say that infinity or God's infinity is the most simple concept absolutely, but the most simple concept we can have that applies properly to God. "Being" all by itself is a simpler concept, but by itself it doesn't refer either to God or to creatures, but indifferently to either. This is conceptual univocity, and doesn't tell us anything about God himself, since God's being has nothing in common with ours in reality.

* * *

Wolter has probably done more than anyone else to make Scotus' though available to English speakers, but I have to admit that his translations are not always very careful. I have found frequent errors myself in his various efforts, and I know others have as well. It's too bad. It shows the importance of having the Latin - and knowing how to read it - for real scholarly work or serious study. As an introduction to a text translations can be great. But if there's only one available (as with most mediaeval philosophy and theology texts) and you can't check, there's no way to tell how accurate it is.

It would be really nice if a team of scholars put together a comprehensive translation of Scotus's extant works in some kind of multi-volume format, similar to what has been done for Aquinas's Summa & Contra Gentiles, so that those of us who don't read Latin won't have to be dependent on so many groups of 'selections'.

I agree, though it would be a huge job. To let you in on a secret, though, Faber and I have talked about possibly undertaking such a project ourselves at some point, if there were a publisher interested.

You can get a few big works apart from mere selections, all done by Wolter or Wolter and collaborators. There's Scotus' De primo principo (which you obviously know about), the Quodlibet (though I hear this is out of print and enormously expensive to find used), the Questions on the Metaphysics, and the Reportatio I-A. This last is in both English and Latin and has an extensive and helpful glossary. It's in two very large volumes which are $100 bucks each, but depending on your interest in Scotus, they might be worth it.

Oh, now I remember I did a post on this subject a while back:

Lee Faber said...

To stick my historical oar in, Francis Mayronis and other early 14th c. scotists also took the God side of the disjunctive transcendentals to be intrinsic modes.

Matthew said...

Can someone explain why an infinite aggregate cannot actually simultaneously exist. I realise this is also St Thomas' position (an infinite magnitude isn't possible). But I don't understanding if God can know an infinite number of things why he can't make something that corresponds to each of those things. What would be necessary is to show why this entails a contradiction is thus impossible for God to do.