Thursday, July 1, 2010

Scotus and the Global Jihad

Ripped from today's headlines comes a mention of the subtle doctor in conjunction with radical Islam (or whatever else you wish to call it). I was perusing a book by Robert Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, which argues that the victory (by means of violence) of the ash'arite school over the mut'azilite school has had catastrophic effects in Sunni islam, indeed, the effect described by the title. The reference to Scotus comes on p.56:

"The early Christian thinker Tertullian questioned what relevance reason could have to Christian revelation in his famous remark 'What does Athens to do with Jerusalem?' The antirational view was apparent in Duns Scotus's and Nicholas of Autrecourt's advocacy of voluntarism. It was violently manifested in the millenarian movements of the Middle Ages, and somewhat within the movement that was known as fideism-faith alone, sola scriptura. In its most radical form, this school held that the scriptures are enough. Forget reason, Greek philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas."

There is a footnote, but the note refers only to an edition of Averroes, which mentions Nicolas of Autrecourt as the "medieval Hume". Scotus is not mentioned. Indeed, the only source I could find is Pope Benedict's Regensburg address, in which he accuses Scotus of voluntarism that unmoors society, etc. So we have the pope to thank for this one. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to contrasting the rationality of Christianity embodied in Aquinas, with the irrationality of the fideists of Islam, the ash'arites. These theologians reduce everything to divine will, and allow that the will can cause other divine attributes and the divine essence, that human knowledge of the natural world is impossible because there is no natural causality, only the divine will willings things in and out of being, that there are 99 divine attributes (+ the eternal koran that exists on a divine tablet "next" to the divine essence) but one should not inquire as to their relation to each other or the divine essence, and so on.

In the popular mind, then, Scotus is the origin of the word "dunce" because he was stupid or because his followers resisted the enlightenment, or, now, Scotus becomes part of the negative backstory of contemporary political punditry. This particular author, is not deserving of the term, as the book contains much theological and philosophical discussion, but it is marketed as part of the "current events" genre.

The numerous stereotypes should be clear to even new readers. Aquinas is the pinnacle of the harmony of faith and reason, Scotus their dissolution. Intellectualism is good, voluntarism is bad. Eithe with Aquians, or against him with deleterious consequences. I'm not sure such a remark is worth refuting, and even less that anyone will care, but here goes:

On the authority side, Benedict himself seems to have revised his views; in his letter to the archdiocese of Cologne and the congress held there during the 700 anniversary of Scotus's death, he praised Scotus for having a harmonious view of faith and reason. Regarding the will, Scotus never held anything near to the ash'arite view, nor indeed, did any other medieval thinker I've ever read. To claim that the divine will constitutes other divine attributes would compromise divine immutability, to which all the medieval scholastic authors adhered. Scotus was indeed a voluntarist, but such terms need to be clarified. In Scotus' case, the divine will and the divine intellect are related as two essentially-ordered causes of the act of volition, leaving no room for the "capricious" charge, for God is not simply pure will nor does his ever will except in conjunction with the intellect. I would supply texts, but as I examined Bonnie Kent's book on the will, I realized that the usual places that get cited for this are all problematic. This is common in Scotus, though especially annoying at the moment; there may be something in Qq in met. IX that is clear, but the other passages all rely on Reportationes and Additiones, none of which have been edited and their level of authority and authenticity determined. So no direct quotes to back up my claims, but one can easily consult the host of scholars who have written on these issues.


Here is an unproblematic text from a genuine work.

Lectura II d. 25 q. un n.69-70 (ed. vat. 19, 253-55):

Therefore I respond to the question that the effective cause of willing is not only the object or phantasm (because this in no way preserves freedom), as the first opinion claimed – nor also is the effective cause of the act of willing only the will, just as the second extreme opinion claimed, because then all the conditions which are subsequent to the act of willing would not be prserved, as was shown. Therefore I hold the middle way, that both the will and the object concur for causing the act of willing, so that the act of willing is from the will and from the object known as from an effective cause.

But how can this be from the object? For the object has abstractive being in the intellect, and it is necessary that the agent is this-something and in act. Therefore i say that the intellet concurrs with the will under the aspect of effective cause – understanding the object in act – for causing the act of willing, and so, briefly, ‘natura actu intelligens obiectum et libera’ is the cause of willing and not-willing and in this consists free choice, whether this be said of us or of the angels.


Michael Sullivan said...

Good job.

It's hard to know how to pick a particular text to cite, but anyone who's read much Scotus would know immediately how ludicrous the charges are. I can't think of a single philosopher the term "anti-rational" would apply to less than Scotus. What's the text to support that God isn't pure will or that the will doesn't determine the other attributes? I'm tempted to say that the supporting text is all of Ordinatio I, since just about every position Scotus takes about God on any subject is incompatible with the accusations.

Scott Williams said...

It seems to me that the charge of "volunteerism", that it entail irrationality or anti-rationality, is equivalent to what philosophers today call the 'luck objection' to a libertarian account of free will. However, libertarians, especially Scotus, have ample resources to respond to this objection, e.g., the necessary role of the intellect--as Augustine said, 'you can only do what you know (cognize, dispositionally or occurrently)'. It's this tag-line from Augustine that just about every scholastic I know accepts--even "voluntareerists" (=libertarian free will advocates) like Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for this.

Drew said...

As a student of both Scotus and Sunni theology (more so the latter than the former), I can say unreservedly that Reilly's contentions are historically unfounded.

The Ash'arite school, preeminently represented by al-Ghazali, though important, is only one of many schools of theological thought that is recognized within Sunni orthodoxy. The problem with the Ash'arite system was its occasionalism and associated denial of secondary causality, not its view of the divine being. The "Ninety Nine Names", as the writings of al-Ghazali clearly indicate in numerous places, are not "mere" names for the divine essence; they are "analogous" names for real, subsistent entities that "surround" the divine essence (much as the energeia do in Eastern Christian mysticism), that are as eternal and immutable as it is, and do not owe any causal origin to the divine essence. God cannot will to not have these attributes. In a sense, the divine Will ad extra is "limited" by these attributes, in a sense similar to the relationship of the divine Will to the two tables of the Decalogue in Scotus's account. There was always, of course, the caveat that our understanding of what these attributes mean will not always be matched by what God has chosen to do, but this does not eliminate the fact that there is an "intellectualist" element to orthodox Sunni accounts of the divine will. Whether we are talking about Sunni Muslims or Augustinian-leaning Scholastics, God's will is certainly not understood to be arbitrary.

Tap said...

The Pope is very sensitive to criticism, and apparently reads this blog, so after you scathing remarks he decided to praise scotus in his general audience.;)


Lee Faber said...

Thanks Tap. But apparently he didn't catch my update.