Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Contribution of Duns Scotus to the Cosmological Argument

Duns Scotus is often (and unfortunately) overlooked as one of the great medieval Christian philosophers. He is known for his vigorous defense of cataphatic theology (as opposed to apophatic, or negative, theology). His contribution to the cosmological argument, however, cannot be overstated. Although he offers reasons for rejecting a non-temporal infinite regress of causes, it is his possibility premise for the existence of a First Cause that in many ways may be compared to the recent developments of the ontological argument. Scotus reasons as follows:

1. A First Cause possibly exists. (Premise)

There doesn't appear to be any contradiction with the idea of a First Cause, and given the arguments against an infinite regress of non-temporal causes, (1) may even be an understatement.

2. Whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary. (Definition)

3. Whatever is contingent can be actualized. (Premise)

Think of some contingent entity, such as a tree. We know that trees and other contingent entities are capable of being actualized, e.g. transitioned from a state of potentiality only to a state of actuality. (3) seems more reasonable than not.

4. A First Cause cannot be actualized. (Premise)

Assume the opposite. If a First Cause were ever actualized, then it is either: a) actualized by something external to itself, or b) self-actualized. (a) is impossible, since if anything else actualized the First Cause, then the First Cause wouldn't really be first at all. (b) is also impossible, since nothing can actualize itself. In order to actualize itself, an entity must first exist to be actualized, which is contradictory. Because (a) and (b) are necessarily false, it must also be necessarily false that a First Cause can be actualized. Hence, (4) is correct.

5. Therefore, a First Cause is necessary. (From 1 - 4).

In his excellent book, The Cosmological Argument, atheistic philosopher William Rowe doesn't dispute any of the premises of Duns Scotus' argument. Rather, what Rowe attempts to do is demonstrate that if this argument were correct, it would lead to all kinds of absurdities:

Surely it is possible for an everlasting star to exist. The stars that exist are presumably not everlasting--for each star, let us suppose, there was a time before which it did not exist and there will be a time at which it ceases to exist. But this seems to be an empirical fact and not a matter of conceptual or logical necessity. The idea of an everlasting star does seem to be a non-contradictory idea, even if no star is in fact everlasting. Let us grant, then, that

i. it is possible for an everlasting star to exist.

Now clearly we must grant that

ii. it is impossible for an everlasting star to come into existence. (If x comes into existence then by definition x is not everlasting.)

Moreover, since if something is produced by something else then there was a time before which it did not exist, we have

iii. it is impossible for an everlasting star to be produced by something else. [1]

Rowe concludes that if Scotus' cosmological argument (SCA) is correct, it can also be used to demonstrate that an everlasting star exists. But since we know that everlasting stars do not exist, something must be wrong either in the validity of the argument or in one of its premises.

The problem with Rowe's counter-argument is that it assumes a type of modality not necessarily entailed by Scotus. Even a star that is everlasting is being actualized by the matter that composes it. The analogy, then, of a non-actualized everlasting star seems to be incoherent and disanalogous to the SCA. For, the First Cause that Scotus envisages is simply not actualized at all. In other words, the First Cause doesn't require anything non-essential to itself to sustain its existence. Presumably, the matter of an everlasting star could logically be reconfigured.

Rowe, much to his credit, includes a footnote of this point. What the SCA entails is logical modality, and not metaphysical modality only. Rowe's objection is only successful if the SCA were to only apply metaphysical modality to the First Cause. After relating the possibility that the SCA may be including logical modality, Rowe simply moves on to discuss the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (LCA), and specifically Samuel Clarke's version of the LCA.

[1] William L. Rowe, The Cosmological Argument, Fordham University Press, 1998, pp. 52-53.


  1. Have you read James Ross's work on Scotus' argument? Found in his 1969 _Philosophical Theology_, in _The Cambridge Companion to Scotus_, and, obliquely, his last book, _Thought and World_.

    The other problem with an everlasting star is that the definition of a star is a) that it is a collapsed planet and b) that it therefore has a finite amount of mass to expend before collapsing. This approach towards implosion itself includes the fact c) that a star pulsates at a specific radiometric frequency and c') that it is receding from a terrestrial observer at a specific Dopplerized velocity. As such, a star's constitution intrinsically bears reference to spatiotemporal succession, at least in notion, and therefore includes contingency in its own notion. Granted, such a 'star' could be posited to have just "been there" from/for all time, but, again, its stellar specificities (e.g. an infinitely large star coextensive with the cosmos is incoherent) render it decisively unlike what God is. The more it takes on divine attributes, the less it enjoys stellar attributes, until eventually Rowe's objection just becomes a species of the "flying spaghetti monster" argument.


  2. "... Presumably, the matter of an everlasting star could logically be reconfigured."

    The mere fact of being a star necessitates that its matter is continuously being reconfigured.

    But, as you say a bit previously to what I quoted, the deeper disanalogy is that a hypothetical everlasting star is being actualized by the matter comprising it, whereas the First Cause is not actualized at all.

    Thus, even a hypothetically everlasting block of lead everlastingly at absolute zero is still disanalogous to the First Cause.

  3. hey doug,

    i have an unrelated question. i sent this question to Bill Craig, but hopefully you can address this too. Here goes nothing:

    Sceptics to the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection sometimes argue that our very large experience with death and human beings is that dead people stay dead. As such, the Christian theist is allegedly faced with a very strong inductive generalization which is said to function as evidence for the position that Jesus also remained dead. But, I wonder if this sceptical argument is well fitted for the debate since the Christian theist neither purports nor assumes that Jesus is merely human. After all, part of the evidence for the resurrection is his alleged divine self-understanding, and this is used in conjunction with other evidences to conclude the historicity of his resurrection. Yet, his resurrection is highly suggestive if not implicative to his divinity, is it not?

    It seems, then, that the only people who would be persuaded by this inductive generalization (as mentioned above) are only people which presume or believe that Jesus is just another human being. Yet, isn’t that one of the things to be proven? If so, this sceptical approach begs the question against the Christian theist.

    What do you think? Am I correct or have I gone wrong somewhere?

    Best regards,


  4. Codgitator, I haven't read any James Ross, but I'm now thinking it would be a good idea to buy one (or more) of his books. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Ilion, yes, I think you have nailed the problem down. As Codgitator makes even more explicit, any physical entity (everlasting or not) is still contingent upon spatio-temporal relations and upon the process of having its actualization sustained by external causes.

    Mickey, I think you're correct in your assessment. Your argument seems to be similar to Craig's response, "nobody is raised from the dead naturally; but this only implies that Jesus was raised supernaturally." The reason I have never been impressed by inductive arguments against the resurrection is that they overlook personal agency with respect to probability. It is highly unlikely that I will win the lottery, or that I will win the lottery one hundred times in a row, assuming that it all comes down to chance. But, if somebody rigs the lottery for me, then there is nothing improbable about it. God's act of raising Jesus from the dead may be likened to a divine rigging. :)

  5. Mickey,
    While this post on my blog doesn't address the exact question you asked Mr Benscoter, it does address the deeper issue of the intellectually dishonest selective hyper-skepticism you're noticing.

  6. Mr Bebscoter,
    In the post to which I linked a moment ago, I show how "scientific" inductive arguments against the resurrection are unimpressive even on their own terms.