Scotus on the Unicity of God

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle argues that there is but a single highest good for humans, namely eudaimonia, that state of flourishing that exists in persons whose practical wisdom is habituated in such a way that they always make choices in accordance with right reason. That eudaimonia is one such "highest good" is virtually trivially true, but must it be the only such good? Can there not be many things that are fully self-sufficient in the sense that we choose them strictly for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else? Aristotle appears to assume that there cannot be more than one such good, but he offers no argument in defense of this assumption, and that has caused some folks to wonder. Either ethics, as a discipline, is not such as to offer arguments for such things (as Aristotle himself points out in the Nicomachean Ethics, one must not look for greater precision in a given discipline than is possible in that discipline), or the argument for the assumption is, in some sense, obvious.

Since Aristotle is happy to provide arguments for similar assumptions elsewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics, it seems that the argument for this particular assumption must, somehow, be staring us in the face. As it happens, the argument is rather obvious if one is familiar with Aristotle's doctrine of causal explanation, and I was reminded of it recently while perusing Blessed John Duns Scotus' discussion of the unicity of God in his Opus oxoniense (1, dist. 2, q. 3; Vatican ed. vol. II, 222-243). God is, if you will, a kind of "highest good", not just for humans but for everything; yet we assert that there is but one God. Why? Can there not be multiple Gods, all of whom serve as "highest goods" in some theological scheme? In short, why is polytheism impossible? I say "impossible" because, according to Scotus, it is not merely a matter of faith or dogma that there is only one God: it is a matter of logical necessity.

Scotus begins with the assumption that any will that is infinite wills things in the way that they should be willed. This he takes to imply a principle that we may call the principle of natural will: a correct will loves what is lovable to the extent that it is lovable and to the extent that the will is capable of loving, hence an infinite will will love whatever is lovable to the extent that it is lovable without exception. Suppose, then, that we posit two such infinite wills, that is, two Gods, calling one A and the other B. Both A and B, then, will love whatever is lovable to the extant that it is lovable and without exception; since both A and B are infinitely lovable, then each will love the other infinitely. Here Scotus introduces an assumption that must be unpacked. He says that everything loves its own being more than any other, just so long as it is neither a part nor an effect of this other. We may call this the principle of natural love: fundamentally it means that, given a particular nature (e.g., human, dog, divine), the conscious awareness and will of any being with that nature will be most intimately familiar with its own being rather than that of any other particular nature and, hence, most naturally able to will and to do what is best for that particular nature (here "to love" means something along the lines of "having what is best for X at heart and in one's will").

In the case of our two Gods, A and B, we find that each of them is infinitely lovable, hence B is to be infinitely loved by A. And yet A must naturally love itself more than anything else, including B. But if A loves itself more than it loves B, then it does not love B infinitely, even though B is deserving of infinite love from A. If A does not love B infinitely, A is not acting in accordance with its own nature and, hence, cannot be infinite. So either A loves B as much as it loves itself and, hence, violates the principle of nature love; or A loves B less than A loves itself and violates the principle of the natural will. Both are conceptual impossibilities, hence the actual existence of more than one God is conceptually impossible.

The principle of the natural will and of natural love are, I think, unfamiliar to us and yet perfectly acceptable. If they seem strange, though, Scotus offers an ancillary argument based on this one. He remarks that there are two ways in which A may love B. Either A may love B for its own sake, or it may simply use B. If it merely uses B, the love is inordinate. If it loves B for its own sake because of B's nature, then, having the same nature as B, A will love itself for its own sake as well. But this means that A is beatified by two distinct objects, both A and B, neither of which depends upon the other, for A is made happy by itself just as much as it is by B. But it is conceptually impossible to find perfect beatitude in two distinct objects, because either one may be destroyed without any loss of beatitude, hence complete beatitude is not dependent upon either object.

It seems to be something like this latter argument that Aristotle must have in mind in the Nicomachean Ethics: humans have only one final good because the very notion of a "final good" seems to entail that there could only be one such thing. Scotus' arguments, in other words, have that logical flavor that so characterizes Scholastic argument generally.

Comments

John Farrell said…
He's back!
(and there was much rejoicing)

;)
CrimsonCatholic said…
Welcome back!

As usual with Scotus, I think his argument sounds good, but after I think about it, I can't see how to make it work. The principle of natural love might be coherent in the case of a conscious being because a conscious being really does know itself better than anything else. But isn't that necessarily untrue in the case of God? Does the Father know Himself better than He knows the Son?

I've found Scotus's treatment of infinity (what I know of it, anyway) quite pesky in these cases. The formal distinction is taken as an excuse for the different perfections to be treated as in some sense real (at least as an object of knowledge), so that you can use an infinite extrapolation of some specific perfection to describe God accurately. So here, one argues that A must love B or A, but if one denies that there is such a thing as an infinite will in the first place, then one could just as easily say that A need not love anything at all, and indeed, need not be personal (or conscious) at all, except analogously. To say otherwise seems troublingly close to asserting the existence of the Trinity as a logical necessity, when it is necessarily a revealed truth.

I would argue that we can't make such extrapolations as "infinite will" meaningfully. I think St. Thomas would have charged Scotus's "infinite will" with the same conceptual incoherence as Anselm's that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived. The starting premise is not properly conceputalizable, so conclusions can't be drawn from it. Instead, we would have to construe person, willing, knowing, etc., only analogously, which would defeat the argument Scotus is trying to construct.

Regarding Aristotle, you would know better than I, but from what limited acquaintance I have with the Stagirite, I would think that he had impersonal goodness in mind. Specifically, I think he would say that there was only one final good because there was only one universe. Given that he found no need for a causal explanation of the existence of the universe, it seems that he would have been quite content to say that the universe having only one final good was simply a property of its existence as a whole. Wouldn't "ordered to one final good" and "universe" just be equivalent concepts?

I suspect all of the above could simply have been summarized in pointing out that I have trouble buying Scotus's formal distinction, but perhaps outlining my confusion in greater detail will make it easier to clear it up. :-)
Roland said…
I don't know if this would translate to philosophy, but in mathematics not all infinities are equal.
Michael said…
Mr Prejean,

if my memory serves, Scotus makes this argument as a stage in a much larger and very complicated argument about God's existence and attributes. I believe that by the time he gets to unicity he's already demonstrated that the First Cause has intellect and will. Does that help any?

I'm not sure that I get your objection to saying "infinite will". What about "infinite intellect"? Thomas would admit that God knows infinitely many objects. But then I've never adequately grasped your problem with infinity in Scotus in the first place. I don't see how analogy clears up any problems in this arena either. If we say that God has will, call that an analogous or a univocal predication, we're still not saying that his will is finite, are we?

A lot of things do boil down the the formal distinction in Scotus. It's hard to know what to say about it to someone who both understands and rejects it (a small percentage of those who talk about it). Once the issues are grasped and it becomes clear what Scotus' position really is (e.g. that it's a variety of real distinction, not a variety of notional distinction), it seems like a completely necessary conclusion. You can every theologian from Bonaventure up till Scotus trying to reach something like it and not quite getting there.

seems troublingly close to asserting the existence of the Trinity as a logical necessity, when it is necessarily a revealed truth

I'm not sure why it's necessarily a revealed truth. To say that in fact we can't know the Trinity without revelation is another story. But as you know more than one Doctor of the Church thought that perhaps one could know that God was a Trinity. Were they wrong to look for confirmatory arguments in principle or only in fact?
CrimsonCatholic said…
I don't know if this would translate to philosophy, but in mathematics not all infinities are equal.

I don't think it does translate to philosophy, which is what I find troubling.

Thomas would admit that God knows infinitely many objects.

But Thomas would say that He knows infinitely many objects simply, so that there is no real distinction between the power of knowing and the power of willing. "Infinite will" therefore sounds to me like "simply complex;" I don't know what to make of it.

A lot of things do boil down the the formal distinction in Scotus. It's hard to know what to say about it to someone who both understands and rejects it (a small percentage of those who talk about it). Once the issues are grasped and it becomes clear what Scotus' position really is (e.g. that it's a variety of real distinction, not a variety of notional distinction), it seems like a completely necessary conclusion. You can every theologian from Bonaventure up till Scotus trying to reach something like it and not quite getting there.

I'm probably among the group of people who don't understand it, but I don't see Bonaventure as needing supplementation on this point. What was wrong with divine simplicity in Bonaventure (or for that matter, Augustine)? I suppose what I have trouble understanding is the need for the formal distinction. I don't get the impression from Bonaventure (although I have not read him nearly as extensively as you) that he was groping at a conceptual distinction. I gather that he has something definite in mind by identifying infinity and simplicity, and Scotus's idea seems to be a deviation from the identity of those two concepts. In my mind, Thomas demonstrated the coherence of intrinsic infinity, infinity of being itself as opposed to any particular power, which was implicit in the identification of infinity and simplicity. Scotus seems to break this identity with the formal distinction, and I think that is what I find troubling.

At least this confirms my suspicion that the conceptual problem is in the formal distinction, which I believe Thomas proved as being unnecessary. But I probably don't understand the concept well enough to actually know that to be the case, so I guess I need to do some homework.

Thanks for the response!

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