Duns Scotus: First and Final Causes
“I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Revelation ch1)
Here I explore some aspects of Duns Scotus’ philosophy of God as First and Final Causes and how this may relate to the cosmos we know now.
Firstly, God as Efficient First Cause of the Cosmos related to the fine-tuning of the physical constants in nature that is called the “Anthropic Principle”. I find the First Cause is also related to an underlying unity and dignity of all life.
Secondly, God as Final Cause related to cosmic purposes and our individual and social destiny. We may anticipate in our lives now the hope of that great ending in the unity of God.
Thirdly, God’s supreme knowledge and the question of whether God can know the future in a free acting cosmos in which there is randomness and free will.
Examining the Existence of God
In the Middle Ages theological discussion found some focus in rational arguments for God’s existence on the basis of philosophy and rational argument. It was part of flowering of religious philosophy that involved engagement with the philosophy of Aristotle. Scotus was one of those who engaged in attempted proofs of the existence of God in order to examine the doctrine of God. His long argument for the existence of God embraced the concepts of First Cause, Supreme and Infinite Being and Final cause. In his Ordinatio and other related works he sets out first to establish the existence of a First and Final Cause for creation, then the actuality of a Supreme Being and that this Being is Infinite.
The subject of Infinite Being is dealt with in another section. Here I deal with God as First and Final Causes and also about God’s supreme knowledge. It maybe that what Scotus writes is today no longer a “proof” of the existence of God in a way that we may think is proof but what may be more interesting is that his categories of First and Final Cause underlines faith in God who has the nature of being the author of causality and author of our being and existence.
Efficient First Cause
The idea of God as causative agent is an amalgam of the jewish-christian heritage of God as creator and Aristotle view of God as Prime Mover. God is the First Causality of all that exists. All our knowledge of God starts from creatures that we can see and know, and as a result we may be able to prove the existence and nature of God by reasoning from observed effect to a cause that precedes it. Put simply, no effect can cause itself. An effect must have a cause and it is not possible to have an infinite going backwards in causation. There must be an original cause that comes first before all others. God is that Efficient First Causality of that order and all that exists. To put it another way, you are what you are because of all the chain of events that have preceded you. Your life now is the final outcome of all that has gone before. If you could trace all the chain of events and every being back to the very start then God is the First Cause of it all.
However, when we want to affirm God as First Cause, before all other causes, we should take note of Paul Tillich’s criticism that God cannot simply be a First Cause among all other causes. God is not just A Cause, God is the Ground of Being and different to all causes. God’s causing is totally different to all material causes. We do God an injustice if we equate divine casuation with every other type of causation. God is not just the First of the series, God is the very origin of every other cause that has come into existence. Nor is God just the one who initiates things at a point in time. God is always involved with the ongoing processes in life and upholding all life.
In relation to Scotus’ argument of God as Efficient First Cause we may enter into the discussion today about the “Anthropic” evidences for God, as the universe appears to have some necessary characteristics that have enabled the universe to be as it is and be the place where intelligent life like ours can exist and we are here to observe it.
Even though the cosmos is now viewed as much older, more vast and complex than previously thought by traditional theologies of past generations the evidence from scientific discoveries is that life has become possible and only potentially probable because of the specific physical patterns and conditions that have their origins within the origin of matter. The kind of things that are considered as unique and necessary physical characteristics for the cosmos to exist are things like the force of gravity and the interplay of other characteristic forces within the atoms and the unique binding and reactive properties of the elements and combinations of properties that make up water, carbon-carbon bonding, the properties of specific compounds necessary for life.
The universe exists as it does because of these properties and these properties and interactions enable life forms to develop and flourish. Such observations have been called “Anthropic”. If specific patterns of forces and characteristics of matter had not been present in the universe then life could not exist and we would not be here to observe it. Such things may also accord with what Bonaventure described as “traces of God” within creation.
Such patterns within nature have been used to support the possible or even probable existence of God. John Poilkinghorn and others of the Michael Faraday Institute have used the arguments of the fundamental limitations of physical forces and origins of matter to argue for an evidence of God as the origin and creator. There is an order in the universe and that order can still point to God as the origin and cause. Specific conditions were present at the beginning and those specific conditions were important for all subsequent developments. It is not just that the universe began but that the universe began with a specific set of parameters right at its origin. It was something of specific actualities of life that was begun and could this have occurred without an original uncreated Efficient Cause?
There are various other arguements related to the “Cosmological Argument” and the “Anthropic Argument” that have been historically used may be useful in science and theology but today cannot be a completely conclusive knock-down argument for the existence of a creator, or creative design of the universe and it would be dangerous to make it so just in the state of current knowledge. Others may argue that the Anthropic nature of the universal properties may have arisen in some spontaneous way as a subset of others that could not give rise to it. There is debate about the alternative views of multiverses or multiple regions of the universe that could have existed but were not sustainable and therefore did not give rise to an observable universe in which we could exist.
Therefore we cannot look at Anthropic data or any scientific evidences as full proof evidences for God as if we can say that these things are not explainable and therefore God exists. For if they are explainable by other ways then God is knocked out of the picture and what becomes of credible faith? It may be better just to say that if, as we believe, that God exists then a God who sets parameters for the existence of the universe is an Efficient First Cause and can be known as such. God in such a view has set or caused potentially the parameters and conditions for life at the beginning and they were “very good” and allowed our existence in accord with a divine desire. The arguments have reasonable credibility even if not completely full proof. They also have role in describing what such an Orignal Being and First Cause is like.
First Cause Unity of life and persons
I find that there is an application of the First Cause principle that can be related to some moral and ethical foundations. We can trace all things backwards to their physical origin, and as related to each other as radiating outwards in their being from that origin. This common origin is the first expression of an original unity and inter relatedness that means that any subsequent distinction between things always points back to an original unity. The great radiation of life into actual distinct forms and species should also lead us back to discover our common link and common worth in the First Creative Act of the one who is the First of all.
When we acknowledge such unity of orgin we must see all things in their origin as related to God who is the First Cause of Love and from whom all life has come and from which all life and distinct persons are also to be loved irrespective of their environmental, local or racial origins. This puts all on a common footing and a divinely loved worth, despite their individual distinctions, as willed into existence and loved from that will. Humanity in sinfulness, makes too much of creaturely and tribal distinctions and rivalries that should no longer exist in us as evolved intelligent life. Divisions, whether social or economic, should not exist in our society and where they do exist they are now something to be challenged and opposed.
Our knowledge of our common origin places in question all current divisions between people, all forms of slavery, cruelty, social inequality and violence that accompanies such false distinctions of personal and tribal worth. The First Cause and our common coming to be from that origin must lead us to the highest social and ethical lifestyles towards our common humanity and respect for every other creature that shares out existence. ( I mention this again under Humanity: Family).
Think of the events that have shaped your life from the beginning of your own existence up till now.
Think of the people who have affected your life,
Think back beyond yourself to vast timescale of life on earth, the procession of life going back to simpler organisms, then back to when the earth had no life at all. Then back to the formation of the sun, and the time before the sun.
Back then to the very start of space and time when there was no matter, no universe, just God, uncreated cause.
See yourself as part of the great chain of events and life that has preceded you
See yourself as having a common origin with all in your church, community work place.
How does that affect how you see “others” who are different?
See yourself having a common origin with all the natural world around you and all that has lived and died, yesterday and today. How does that affect how you see the world around you?
The Final Cause is the goal towards which things are moved. It is a cause and movement towards an end, to bring about something by initiating it. In biblical theology there is a future goal focused on the glory of the Word in Christ uniting all things in the cosmos and the consummation of all the redemptive action of God, associated with New Heaves and New Earth that replaces the old that has passed away. He is the “Alpha and Omega”, the First and Last of all. He is its origin and the end to which it evolves and moves.
Francis of Assisi had urged his followers to be like him is constantly seeking the will of God and to do it. Scotus as a Franciscan may have taken from this to give a strong emphasis on the divine will rather than the “knowledge” emphasis that permeates so much other Christian philosophy of his era. The Divine Will is part of his analysis of causation and so he takes up the Aristotle concept of Final Cause moved towards an end. Along with God being an Efficient First Cause, there is a requirement for a Final Cause as well. The Efficient Cause is just something that starts a motion. The FInal Cause initiates events towards and end.
In “Treatise on God as First Principle” Scotus makes a specific link between the Final Cause and the love of God for “the Beloved”. While this could include all things that God makes and loves it is more likely that this has a specific link with Jesus who is Christ, the Son and Beloved, who is to be the centre and reason for all creation (as stated in Colossians ch 1). The biblical teaching of all made for Christ, and Him as the focus for all things yet to come is thus expressed in God as Final Cause. God through and in Christ, and the Spirit, is the Final Cause so that all things are moved to the future end. Causation has a direction. This will be discussed further in relation to Jesus Christ and the Primacy of Christ before all creation exists. It leads us also into consideration of the whole purpose of God in Trinity and interaction of World and Spirit in the world.
But we may well ask “does nature and the cosmos show any specific natural goal or movement towards an end or ends”? Some will argue from various observations that the cosmos is just an unfolding process of continuous cause and effects and there may be no evidence of an orientation except for the natural outcomes of physical processes and the balances of forces. There would in this view be no orientation apart from that affected by those processes. Several theoretical cosmic scenarios point to either a slow eventual death of all the stars in the cosmos as they use up their atomic fuel and insufficient gravity to collapse remaining dust clouds into new stars. The universe dies as all the light goes out. Others postulate a cosmic collapse back into a singularity. Either scenario would mean an ultimate end to the cosmos. Long before that time the earth itself may suffer from one of several means of physical or environmental destruction that would extinguish all life. There would seem in this material view no ultimate purpose or goal for life, just a limited and tragic exstence ending in futility.
Also in the natural world if there is an orientation to life there is also an orientation to eventual death of everything as everything is limited in time. It is bleak physical scenario altogether as far as physical and biological life is concerned. Evolution too would seem to have no purpose or specific goal beyond enabling specific forms of life to survive and develop further in response to available factors. There is in many material views no direct indication of a particular purpose in the development of the cosmos and life on earth. Everything has limitation and everything will die and be extinguished. In these views of things the only Final Cause is the automatic outcomes of existing laws of physics and biology. That from a Christian viewpoint is unsatisfactory and we need something beyond physical determinations,. something related to resurrection and transformation of matter in the future (to be discussed later).
Despite these bleak material scenarios there is a possible orientation towards an end. It may be argued that because of the potential for the evolution to greater complexity of systems that may store information, that can lead to the complexity of something like the human brain, then rational self-aware life is one end point among many possible end points. It is a matter of faith from revelation that this outcome is not simply some random set of events that could have happened, but instead is a fulfilment of the goal of God to create rational creatures for divine communion and into which He may become united.
Teilhard de Chardin in particular is helpful here as he emphasised a view that God is always ahead of events and drawing things to a future convergence. All things in existence are related to Christ up ahead attracting things to Him. Wolfart Pannenberg in a similar but different way views God as an attractive field of force ahead of creation, like a kind of gravity towards which all things are attracted. Quite how God is the Final Cause and things will reach destined end depends on how one views the potential activities of God in relation to the world, as active intervention or passive waiting for some probable and inevitable events in the unfolding of the universe and evolution of life. (Such things are discussed further elsewhere under the chapters of Good and Humble God and Trinity).
Here again if there is a special future to come with an unfolding purpose related to the Word in Christ, the greatest focus of unity in beginning and ending, this we must anticipate in the here and now in our thinking and acting. We anticipate the end by living towards it and yearning for its completion. We try and live in the Spirit of Him who summons us to that better end. Here again we are summoned to unity and overcoming social and political divisions. We reach out to others beyond ourselves and overcome prejudice and division. We cannot stand with any injustice that is destined to be ended and overcome.
To conclude it is possible that we may find some sense of things ordered and directed to an end, even if that end is in fact the extinction of the cosmos and the extinction of life. But is only in the context of religious faith that we observe, believe in and uphold a Final Cause of everything that moves to a glorious conclusion rather than a future futility. It is the specific revelation of God in Jesus Christ that points to a Transcendent purpose and direction to cosmic development, the evolution of life and the eventual cosmic renewal. This faith is based on the revelation of the Resurrection of the Jesus, as Son and Word of God, after his physical death on the cross rather than metaphysical reasoning on scientific proofs. It is a faith that also says all that is beautiful and good will somehow survive or become held in the divine presence despite the physical destruction of the body. Something of our consciousness shall survive physical death embodied in a new way and united with God for whom it was destined from the first. If we know these things we must live and take actions according to such hopes.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega”
Consider the cosmos continues to move to an ultimate climax that is completed in Jesus Christ.
Know yourself as invited to share in this unknown but glorious future.
What perspective does this give your own life when so many things seem to fail and fall apart?
How may you anticipate today something of the glory of the unity of all things that is to come?
We have the belief and assertions that God is Infinite, First and Final Cause. As Final Cause God is Directive towards an end and such Being requires something that we would describe as Intellect, having knowledge. In order for God to be Final Cause and willing things to an end, it seems reasonable to assume that this may in some way be affected by God’s knowledge of things, including a knowledge of time and where future contingents could lead. We may therefore explore what Scotus says about God’s knowledge in general and also with regard to God’s ability to know a future event before it happens. We do so with the realization that this is speculation about an Infinite Unknown and that we cannot limit God to an understanding of linear time as we know it and experience it. If God is Infinite and Transcendent then God’s view of time and space will be very different to our own time bound sequential limitations. We have to hold in mind the fact of God’s Transcendence and that God is the Ground and Origin of everything known to us but also in some ways accessible to us through images within our known reality.
My starting points for this consideration of Divine Knowledge related to directed causes are some notes and reflections from reading Richard Cross “Duns Scotus” and “Duns Scotus on God”. Admittedly this is a summary of a summaries of various parts of Scotus’ works but incorporates my own reflections on what I think it may mean as we seek to understand what kind of knowledge God may have of the Cosmos and events in time and space and how that may be relayed to God as Final Cause.
God’s knowledge comes from the divine essence and is part of God’s nature as divine being. Divine knowledge cannot be caused by anything external because God does not need anything and nothing is necessary to Him. This follows a classical doctrine that God creates but does not need creation and God is Self- sufficient without it. Likewise therefore God’s knowledge is also something that is Self- sufficient and related to that independent divine nature.
There are three aspects to God’s knowledge;
Necessary Truth and possibilities
Contingent Truth (truth that follow from previous truths)
God has a Self –knowledge that comes from an intuitive grasp of His own divine Being. God knows Himself (and more perfectly than we may know our own nature and motivations). God knows His own nature of Love and whose Being is Grace. His willing comes from the nature of that Being as Love. God’s self-knowledge and what He causes is grounds for knowing everything else.
These are derived from the essence of what things are. If something is something there is a truth associated with it being and doing what it does. They are known by Him because He has willed them into existence. God as God knows the origin of that nature and thus understands and knows these truths. Along with the necessary truths about things there are related possibilities that stem from what those things are in their nature. God knows things because He has caused them and given them potential existence. All possibilities and truths about things come from God’s own Self-knowledge and His essence as Love. He knows the potential arrangements and changes that may follow. God knows the individuality of things and what belongs to that individuality more than simply as an assembly of components.
God has knowledge of contingencies (things that must follow in reaction to something that comes before) and potential chains of events that may follow but this knowledge is not to the same extent that God knows what He has caused. It is related to His free will to cause things rather than related to things that are not directed.
This would seem to lead to a situation that if God did not determine something He would not know it perfectly and God would not know a freely unfolding future.
So we have the question “Can God know the future if He does not determine it and if the cosmos has freedom?”
To put it another way what happens to God’s knowledge of events if He “stands back” waiting for an ultimate patterns to emerge. Does God foresee patterns that arise from certain determined patterns built into nature?
I would suggest that God still does know and indeed must know the outcomes of certain patterns of contingent events and in His Infinity beyond our space time is able to know and foresee certain patterns and a desired end that He wills.
God wills certain things and although God gives freedom of determination to aspects of the cosmos and free willed persons. He has the freedom He has given and God must see and know at least some of those patterns that will emerge and take place. Even with our imperfect knowledge we may predict certain patterns of weather over the short term, limited only by our previous knowledge and discoveries of patterns of events and movements. God’s more perfect knowledge of the past and present should enable at least a greater and more certain prediction of events. The biblical revelation is that God is involved in present events and knows the past and present more than we do. This perfect knowledge of the past and present gives knowledge of the future too. There may some a modern aversion to having a God who keeps intervening to touching on things to bring forth a purpose but perhaps that takes on a different aspect when God is relating to rational free willed minds and able to gently pursuade some willing minds to do His will.
In another view, in God’s Infinity there is a timelessness to God’s will and acts, unlike ours done at one time and space. God’s actions should not just be seen in terms of linear time. God has absolute power over things by a free willed nature, in accord with His nature. We might say that the Eternity, in which God exists, is Trans-temporal and all moments of time are present in eternity. In God’s view things may be visible in a way not visible to us.
Classically, divine eternity is an eternal now and God is present to it all. God is not in the flow of time but stands over it. According to Cross Scotus drastically modifies this approach. The past is past and does not currently exist. Eternity because it is infinite is not present to any non-existent time. The future things are Not present to God as those things that have happened already because a future thing needs to be caused. Eternity can only co-exist with temporal existence and space time is Not a timeless block. The future does not now exist and here is a dynamic rather than successive sequence of time. Each Now is radically new. Now and only Now is given eternity. God is only present to time as it occurs.
I find this latter view of God’s knowledge strange and radically different to other classical approaches to God’s eternal knowledge because Scotus puts so much emphasis on God’s willed actions tied to God’s knowledge and not sufficient consideration to the freedom God gives the cosmos and human free will. In contrast I suggest instead that God can at least know the potential emergent patterns of events as they may occur and God when present in time and in each time can know the immediate potentials that can occur. I think that Scotus has a too strong emphasis on God’s will and that God knows what He wills. Perhaps modern questions about a quantum and free universe that develops in a free manner according to past events and emergent patterns would mean that God cannot know completely the future, but even so God is present to each time and could in some way affect a particular outcome if God so chose to do so. In relation to humanity and other free willed creatures that will could be expressed as an invitation to join in co-operation towards an end rather than something forced to occur by a dominating will making things happen according to an inscrutable will and plan.
In conclusion it seems to me that we must hold in tension a view that God desires a direction for the cosmos and certain elements of the created order respond to a present will of God towards some end or ends. With free willed individuals of course the will of God can be done on a co-operative basis with responsive persons and move towards a desired future willed by God as an aim. What to me is more important for a modern cosmic vision of God is a divine knowledge of individuals and objects and the fundamental patterns of events that could occur and which may in some way be directed and loved towards particular ends, including the co-operation of some individual free willed persons to share in that development.