Duns Scotus, God’s Ability to Keep Forms in Existence, and Animal Immortality


John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308) ...

John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308) was a theologian and philosopher. Some think that during his tenure at Oxford, the notion of what differentiates theology from philosophy and science began in earnest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is well-known that John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) had a more voluntarist bent in his philosophy than did St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Scotus, writing in light of the Condemnation of 1277, in which the Bishop of Paris declared a number of Aristotelian propositions to be heretical, was careful to stay in line with current church teaching. Now the two great medieval thinkers would agree that God can do anything logically possible that is consistent with His nature. Aquinas, however, included all ten commandments under the natural law, while Duns Scotus held that the commandments dealing with human conduct were consistent with the natural law, but could be overridden by God given particular circumstances. Another issue to which Scotus devotes attention is whether God could maintain plant or animal souls (forms) in existence in the same way that the human soul is naturally immortal. (Unlike Aquinas, who believes in absolute proof of the immortality of the human soul, Scotus suggests that although probable arguments can be given to justify the soul’s immortality, conclusive arguments are lacking. Scotus, unlike Aquinas, emphasizes the freedom of God to maintain plant and animal souls in everlasting existence if He so chooses. Now Aquinas says that when a plant or animal dies, the soul is corrupted with the body, since plant and animal souls depend on a functioning body for their existence. Scotus accepts that position, but also emphasizes, as usual, God’s freedom.

What is significant about Scotus’ view has to do with the question of any child who has suffered the loss of an animal companion: “Will my (dog, cat, ferret, rabbit, hamster, etc.) go to heaven? For Aquinas, the answer is a definite “no.” Neither plants nor non-human animals will live in Heaven, but only human beings among embodied creatures. The four elements–earth, air, fire, and water will remain, though in a perfected fashion. When this world comes to an end, so do all the animals.

This is an uncomfortable position for the Thomist to hold, especially given the cosmic eschatological statements of Romans 8 which seem to imply that all of creation will be redeemed. It also ignores the great love between people and their companion animals, a love that is a good for the universe, a love that surely does not die forever with the animal’s death. Given the mistreatment of animals by human beings, it would be fair for animals to share in the eschaton.

If God wanted to keep a dog soul in existence (or a cat soul, a ferret soul, and so forth), according to Scotus He could do so. This does not imply that God would do so, but given the nature of God as love, it is difficult to believe that He would not raise those animals that are precious to human beings–and given God’s plenitude, why would he not raise other animals to whom individuality has worth?  A soul is a form, an informational pattern that acts to organize matter in a particular way. Even if it is not normally ontologically separate from a particular body, according to Scotus, God could miraculously maintain a dog or cat soul in existence up to an infinite future. Then at the resurrection, God would create a new body and allow that animal soul to inform that new piece of matter, perfect the composite, and by His grace grant eternal life to that animal. Scotus’ emphasis on the freedom of God gives more hope to the believer that animal resurrection may take place. That is my hope and prayer.

Gilson and Maritain: Still Worth Reading

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Jacques Maritain

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Aside from the Thomistic community and scholars of medieval philosophy, the names of Etienne Gilson (1884-1978) and Jacques Maritain (1882-1973; his photo is the one posted) may not be familiar to contemporary philosophers. Perhaps their names were mentioned in graduate school a few times, or perhaps students encountered them when studying for comprehensive exams. Yet despite a philosophical climate in the United States largely divided along analytic/Continental lines, Gilson and Maritain are well worth reading even if they are out of current philosophical fashion.

Gilson was one of the great historians of medieval philosophy; his History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages and his classic book on Aquinas’ philosophy, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, are well worth reading today. Readers will not only find writing of beautiful clarity, something missing from so much philosophy, both analytic and Continental, today, but also an excellent survey of both medieval philosophy as a whole and of Aquinas’ philosophy in particular. Gilson’s greatest contribution to general philosophy is probably his book on epistemology, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, which, in attacking Transcendental Thomism, presents a strong case for direct realism. He also wrote books on St. Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, aesthetics, and the relationship between Abelard and Heloise. Whether or not a person accepts his arguments, reading Gilson’s writings is a pleasure, something to be done over a cup of Earl Gray on a rainy day. His arguments may not be in symbolic form, but they are careful, thorough, and beautiful—I know of no other word that is fitting. If truth and beauty are Transcendentals that ultimately have the same extension in God, this may bode well for the soundness of Gilson’s arguments. Gilson also has a book, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, that is relevant to contemporary debates over whether there is teleology in the evolutionary process.

Maritain is less clear, but he is a deep thinker who will reward the patience of the reader. His classic work on epistemology is The Degrees of Knowledge, a book that argues for different epistemological approaches to science, philosophy, art, and revealed religion. Although I disagree with his (and Gilson’s) sharp separation between metaphysics and the physical and social sciences (both were, ironically, close to positivism in their philosophy of science), the idea that different disciplines require different ways of knowing preserves the ability of science, metaphysics, art, and religion to present different aspects of the truth about reality.

Maritain’s work on metaphysics focuses on the “intuition of being,” the sense of utter contingency when we realize that we are held out of nothingness as if by a thread. This intuition of our radical contingency and of the radical contingency of all things is the beginning of the road toward the noncontingent, necessary being, God.

Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry is the finest book on aesthetics I have ever read. Maritain’s connection of Aquinas’ notion of “connaturality,” a “knowledge by love” (person-person, person-animal, person-plant, person-thing) with the artist’s intuition of the fullness of reality is profound. It is similar to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “inscape” and “instress” as well as with Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship. Maritain was also more open than Gilson to abstraction in art.

Maritain’s ethics and political philosophy were based on natural law theory, which puts it in tension with both classical liberalism and social democratic liberalism in contemporary American. Some forms of classical liberalism would accept “natural rights”—how close that idea is to “natural law” is widely disputed among political philosophers. Maritain used natural law to defend the inherent dignity and worth of the individual (rather than use rationality alone, as Kant did). He helped draft the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Good philosophy is never out of date. Although the works of Gilson and Maritain are older works, philosophers should be open to reading them. Better yet, they should read and study them—both philosophers leave much food for thought.