Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

11. Actual infinity of first efficient cause

After establishing the existence of a first efficient and final cause and most perfect being, and their identity in a unique nature, Scotus then moves to the actual infinity of that nature. As indicated, Scotus does not consider the existence of God to have been proven until actual infinity has been demonstrated. He derives the infinity of this primary nature from its properties of efficienct causality, final causality and eminence. The demonstrations based on efficient causality are notable.

Scotus considers two standard arguments for the infinity of the first efficient cause, both treated in some detail by Henry of Ghent in his question on divine infinity, and then constructs a third of his own. The first, based on Aristotle’s Physics VIII, is that since the first mover causes an infinite (that is, beginningless) motion, it must be infinite in power. Scotus, however, sees the argument as needing considerable expansion to establish infinity in the sense desired. First of all, to avoid basing the argument on the false assumption of an eternal world, he argues that the antecedent could be changed to the weaker claim that it is possible for God to cause an infinite motion. (Scotus, like Aquinas, regarded the eternity of the world as factually false but not impossible (see Eternity of the world, medieval views of).) Scotus claims that the consequent equally follows if God can, but in fact does not, produce an eternal motion. Second, he recognizes that a cause is not infinite in power simply because it produces an effect or succession of like effects – in this case the uniform rotations of the outermost heaven – for an infinite duration. Given a finite effect of infinite duration or an infinite succession of such effects, it only follows that their cause is also infinite in duration, not necessarily in power or perfection. Thus, Scotus revises Aristotle’s original reasoning by arguing that the prime mover is causally responsible for the entire infinite succession of motions and derived effects taken together and in their totality. This he does in several ways, all of which depend upon recognizing that the prime mover, since it is the first efficient cause, depends on nothing else for its causal power. As such, the prime mover must possess within itself all at once the total power required to produce all of its effects realizable over an infinite time, for it can receive no power from any external cause. Since these effects are infinite in number, it must be infinite in power.

In addition to the Aristotelian approach based upon the prime mover as the first efficient cause of motion, Henry advanced a second argument for divine infinity based on God as the first efficient cause of being, that is, on God as creator. Henry argued that since the distance traversed from nothing to being in the act of creation ex nihilo was infinite (for a finite distance presupposes two finite beings), God had to be infinite in power. Whereas Scotus found the first approach based on Aristotle’s Physics salvageable, he rejected outright this second argument based on creation. First of all, he noted that the argument requires that creation be taken in the revealed sense of a temporal beginning of the world, which is a matter of religious belief, rather than in the philosophically demonstrable sense of causal dependence. Secondly, Scotus denies that there is an infinite ‘distance’ between being and nothing. Contradictories are not distant in the sense that there is some interval between them, for they are immediate, but only in the sense that one extreme is more perfect than the other. Thus, two opposed extremes cannot be more ‘distant’ than the more perfect of the two. But the more perfect extreme in creation is merely finite. Thus, while a creature is infinitely distant from God, since the more perfect extreme is infinite, it is not so distant from nothing.

Scotus’ third and preferred argument for infinity is drawn from exemplar causation, that is, from the efficient cause considered as an intellective agent. Prior to this proof, Scotus first establishes three necessary preliminary results: that the first cause has an intellect and will, that its intellectual and voluntary acts are identical to its essence and that it knows all that can be known both distinctly and actually. From this he argues that since the divine intellect knows distinctly and actually all that can be known, it knows these things all at once, for an intellect knows successively only if it moves from confused to distinct or from potential to actual knowledge. The things that can be known are infinitely many; therefore, since the intellect of the first efficient cause knows infinitely many things at once, it is actually infinite.

In sum, then, Scotus accepts proofs for infinity based upon the first efficient cause as prime mover and exemplar but not as creating cause. After completing further proofs for infinity based on finality and eminence, he concludes that the existence of God has been demonstrated according to the highest attainable concept (see God, arguments for the existence of).

Citing this article:
Dumont, Stephen D.. Actual infinity of first efficient cause. Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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