Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308)

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

7. Proofs for the existence of God

Duns Scotus’ argument for the existence of God was perhaps the most ambitious of the scholastic period. Running to hundreds of pages and comprising dozens of interim conclusions and corollaries, it exists in at least four significantly modified versions, one in each of his three commentaries on the Sentences and separately as the treatise De primo principio. Among its distinctive features are the demonstration of the so-called ‘triple primacy’, the rejection of Aristotle’s proof from motion, the definition of essentially ordered causes, the argument from possibility and the demonstration of God as infinite being.

According to Scotus, the highest naturally attainable concept of God is that of an actually infinite being. Consequently, Scotus holds that a complete argument for the existence of God can demonstrate nothing less than that some being is actually infinite. For Scotus a proof for a first efficient cause, such as Aquinas’ second way, would not itself fully constitute a demonstration that God exists, but, as will be evident, would be merely a preliminary step in such a demonstration. Thus whereas most scholastics, like Aquinas, first establish that God exists and only later derive infinity as a divine attribute, Scotus requires the demonstration of infinity as logically necessary to establish God’s existence itself. As a result, the structure of Scotus’ proof is exceedingly complex, involving a good portion of his entire natural theology.

The overall structure of Scotus’ demonstration comprises three large, principal steps divided into two main articles. The first step establishes that there is a first efficient and final cause and a most perfect being, the second that these three coincide in a unique nature, and the third that this nature is actually infinite. The first two steps together constitute the first article, which Scotus says establishes God according to the relative properties of causality and eminence (in other words, perfection), and the third step forms the second article, which reaches God according to the absolute property of actual infinity. The establishment in the first half of the proof of something primary according to each of the relative properties of efficiency, finality and eminence is referred to as the demonstration of the ‘triple primacy.’ All of these steps are intricately argued and supported by sometimes large preliminary results, such as that God has both an intellect and will as preparatory to the proof of actual infinity.

As in other areas of his thought, Scotus’ proof reveals the influence of Henry of Ghent. Scotus took over the structure of the triple primacy directly from Henry’s attempt to schematize the eclectic body of received arguments for the existence of God according to the Pseudo-Dionysian ways of causality and eminence (see Pseudo-Dionysius). By subdividing causality into efficient, formal or exemplar, and final causes and interpreting eminence in terms of degrees of perfection, Henry sought to reconcile the disparate arguments from the Aristotelian (efficient and final cause) and Augustinian (exemplar cause and eminence) traditions. In an otherwise important metaphysical step, Scotus maintained against Henry that exemplar cause was simply a species of efficienct cause, and therefore eliminated it as a separate class of argument for the existence of God on the grounds of logical economy. He thereby streamlined Henry’s original divisions of causality and eminence to the three of the triple primacy.

Citing this article:
Dumont, Stephen D.. Proofs for the existence of God. 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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