Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ockham Quodlibet I.1

Okham opens his first quodlibet with Scotus-bashing from the outset. This first question gives us a good look at the way Ockham generally uses Scotus, that is, by referring to him in order to reject him, or by accepting one bit of Scotus' thought as a preliminary to discarding and refuting the rest. It also gives us a peek at his famous philosophical and theological minimalism.

The question is whether it can be proved by natural reason that there is only one God (spoilers: Ockham says no). He begins his answer by considering two "descriptions" of God: 1) God is something nobler or better than anything other than himself; 2) God is that than which nothing is better or more perfect. Note that 1) presumes God's unity while 2) leaves open the possibility of things just as good and perfect as God, though no more so.

First Ockham considers 1). According to description 1) it cannot be proved that God exists. But if it could be proved, then it could also be proved that there is only one God - Ockham uses Scotus' argument to show this. Nevertheless he doesn't think that we can prove the existence either of the "Anselmian" God or even that of a more moderately-conceived "Supreme Being". It seems that Ockham's general preference for physics over metaphysics leads him to accept proofs for a first mover, or a source of all contingent effects, but not the metaphysical arguments which are necessary to demonstrate God's more remote properties - infinity, for instance.

If we take description 2), we can neither prove God's unity nor demonstratively prove that God's unity cannot be proved. (Does this remind anyone else of Gödel?) But, taking 2), it can be demonstrated that God exists, otherwise we could have an infinite regress of good things. But God's unity (like most of his attributes) must be taken on faith. It cannot be proved that God knows or loves other things, "for many philosophers have considered that God neither understands nor wills something other than himself." Similarly it cannot be demonstrated that God is intensively infinite, nor that he is free.

Ockham must have Aristotle in mind most of all as a philosopher who (using physics, of course) proved God's existence but not these other attributes. However, it's not at all clear to me that the fact that many philosophers could not prove them proves that they are not provable by natural reason. For other explanations we need look no further than the opening chapters of St Thomas' Contra gentiles. But for Ockham all such "proofs" rest on doubtful or debatable principles. Accordingly, he considers a number of Scotus' arguments for these points and then rejects them all on similar grounds.


Lee Faber said...

But...probably every claim in philosophy is debatable, or has been doubted by someone... doesn't all certainty, or at least the value of philosophy, just go out the window?

Michael Sullivan said...

Yes, it's a very odd argument.