Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308)

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

8. The proof from efficient causality

Each of Scotus’ proofs for a primacy in efficient cause, final cause and eminence contains three main conclusions: that there is a first in that order, that it is uncaused and that it actually exists. Because Scotus establishes these three results principally for efficienct causation and then applies them to the other two cases, it will be sufficient to examine each of these three conclusions leading to a first efficient cause.

Before beginning the proof from efficienct causation proper, Scotus explains that he is demonstrating a first efficient cause of being and explicitly discards Aristotle’s argument for a prime mover in Physics VIII. Scotus does so not because he thinks Aristotle’s proof invalid but, again, on grounds of economy. To prove a first cause of motion is not necessarily to prove a first efficient cause of being. While the two may coincide in reality, further demonstration is required to establish this identity. Including Aristotle’s physical proof would therefore necessitate a further step. Prior to Scotus, Aristotle’s approach had been increasingly seen as inferior to Avicenna’s strictly metaphysical proof based on necessity and possibility, especially by Henry of Ghent. Scotus, however, represents the final step where Physics VIII is omitted altogether from the standard corpus of arguments for God.

The first conclusion under efficienct causation, then, is that there is some efficient cause absolutely first, so that it neither exists nor exercises its causal power by virtue of some prior cause. Scotus’ main argument for this first conclusion is brief. He formulates the initial premise broadly to include even possible effects: some being can be caused efficiently (aliquod ens est effectibile). It is therefore either caused by itself, by nothing or by another. Since it cannot be caused by nothing or by itself, it is caused by another. This other is either a first efficient cause in the way explained or it is a posterior agent, either because it can be an effect of, or can cause in virtue of, another efficient cause. Again, either this is first, or we argue as before, and some prior cause is required. Thus, there is either an infinity of efficient causes, so that each has some cause prior to it, or there is a first cause posterior to none. Since an infinity of causes is impossible, there must be a primary cause that is posterior to none.

This argument immediately encounters two objections, and Scotus’ replies to them contain the bulk of his proof. The first is that the argument begs the question because it assumes that an infinite regress of causes is impossible. Here is it observed that the philosophers (that is, Aristotle and Avicenna) admitted an infinite series of causes, for they held that the generation of individuals could proceed to infinity, and hence every generating agent would have some prior cause. The second objection is that Scotus’ argument is not strictly demonstrative because it is based on premises that are contingent, namely, that some effect exists. As such, the proposed proof lacks the necessity required of Aristotelian demonstration in the proper sense.

Citing this article:
Dumont, Stephen D.. The proof from efficient causality. 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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