Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

9. Essentially-ordered causes

In response to the first objection, Scotus defines the precise nature of causal relations at issue in arguments against infinite regress. According to Scotus, they do not concern simply essential as opposed to accidental causes, but rather essentially-ordered as opposed to accidentally-ordered causes. The former concern only the relationship that a single cause bears to its given effect, namely, that the effect arises from the nature of the cause rather than from something incidental to it. Essentially-ordered causes, however, concern the relationship of several causes to each other in jointly producing an effect. As defined by Scotus, there are three features of essentially-ordered as opposed to accidentally-ordered causes. The first is that the posterior cause depends upon the prior for the very exercise of its causality and not just for its being, which can be the case in accidentally-ordered causes. The second is that essentially-ordered causes always differ in nature so that the prior cause is more perfect in kind. This is a consequence of the first feature, for given two causes of the same nature, either is sufficient to produce the same effect. Finally, essentially-ordered causes must be simultaneously present to produce their effect, for otherwise from the second feature, some perfection in causality required for that effect would be missing.

Given this distinction, Scotus excludes the counterexample drawn from the philosophers, since it concerns an infinite series of temporally successive, generating causes. The causes in such a series are therefore not essentially but only accidentally ordered to each other in producing a given effect, for the posterior cause does not depend upon the prior for its causal action itself, but only for its existence. This is clear, for all the generating causes in the series are individual agents of the same nature or species, and thus not all are required simultaneously to produce the same effect. For instance, parents can produce a child whether or not their own parent or grandparent is alive. Rather, Scotus directs his argument against an infinite series of causes upon which the entire succession of individual agents itself would depend. Scotus claims that no philosopher admitted an infinite series of such essentially ordered or ‘ascending’ causes.

Having so defined the notion of causality operative in the proof, Scotus remains content to give five brief arguments against infinite regress, based in part upon the received reasoning of Aristotle’s Metaphysics II and Avicenna. An exception is the fifth of these arguments, for here Scotus establishes the possibility of a first efficient cause, the actual existence of which he deduces later. Scotus argues that since efficient causality does not of itself imply imperfection, it is possible for it to exist in some nature without imperfection. That is, efficient causality, like wisdom or intellect, is a ‘pure perfection’. However, if there is an infinite regress in efficient causes, then all would be dependent on some prior cause and efficiency could never be found without imperfection, contrary to assumption. Therefore, a first efficient cause in the sense defined must be possible. While seemingly weaker than the other arguments against infinite regress in that it establishes only the possibility of a first efficient cause, this result enables Scotus to construct a strict demonstration which he claims is necessary.

Citing this article:
Dumont, Stephen D.. Essentially-ordered causes. 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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