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.

Universal Terms and Reality

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The problem of universals is one of the oldest problems in philosophy. From Plato and Aristotle to Boethus, Abelard, and the other medievals to the modern and contemporary periods philosophers have discussed whether universal words such as “man,” “dog,” “oak tree” or “water” exist in themselves, are mere labels for objects we group together for our convenience, or do not refer to things, but to objective similarities between things. Extreme realism, such as held by Plato, holds that universal terms such as “dog” refer to the Form “Dog” that exists in a spaceless, timeless world separate from the empirical world, and which is known by reason, not by sense experience. The opposite view, extreme nominalism, associated with Foucault and Derrida (although whether this is their actual position can be debated) holds that “dog” refers to what any society labels particular animals they wish to group together as “dogs.” There is no essence of dogness, no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for dogness to which the term “dog” refers. Finally, moderate realism (the position of Abelard (perhaps–I think so), St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Blessed Duns Scotus, asserts that universal terms refer to objective similarities between natural kinds of the same type, to a set of, say, necessary and sufficient conditions that make a dog a “dog.” The trend since William of Occam has been toward conceptualism, such as Occam’s notion of universals as labels that refer to similarities between entities that have some basis in extramental reality. He sounds like a moderate realist; some interpreters call him a “realistic conceptualist.” In his own day he was interpreted as a nominalist, and whatever his position may have been, philosophers after Occam gravitated toward nominalism. This trend accelerated the split between faith and reason that ended the Medieval synthesis. The end stage of this process is found in Nietzsche’s work, which supported nominalism in the sense that all meanings are culturally constructed and do not have an objective basis in extramental reality. Contemporary English Departments at many universities, especially in the United States, tend toward a radical nominalism and linguistic constructivism in which universal words refer to whatever fits a particular society’s interest. Even though I agree with the notion that meaning is flexible, since I accept the medieval four-fold model of meaning in Biblical interpretation, there remain limits to the scope of meanings that a word can have. Meaning occurs in context, and a particular context may both increase the number of possible meanings of a term, but it can also lower or eliminate the possibilities of other meanings. “I am going to the bank” makes sense if the person saying that also adds “to go fishing.” If he says, “I am going to the bank to withdraw money,” that eliminates the the other meaning of “bank” as “bank of a river.” Natural kind terms clearly refer to entities that are objectively similar. Sure, a beagle does not look like a Rottweiler, but they are both carnivores, they both bark, they can interbreed, and they have similar genetic codes and similar causal powers. There is no need to posit the existence of “Dogness” in any transcendent world independently of actual dogs. “Dogness” might exist in individual dogs in the sense that it refers to the set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions to make a dog fall under the universal term “Dog” (or another term, such as Canis, used in another language. Thus my own sympathies are with Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ moderate realism: universal terms refer to objective similarities between things that are necessary and jointly sufficient for an entity to be the kind of thing it is. Universal terms may also hint at universal ideas or patterns in the mind of God through which He created the universe and the things in it. This view, dating back to Augustine, was picked up by the Medieval philosphers such as Aquinas, and did not fade until William of Occam denied it in the fourteenth century. Moderate realism evades the problem of arbitrariness found in postmodernism as well as the over-transcendence of Plato’s world of the Forms. I am hopeful that it will be adopted by philosophers outside the Thomist school, since as Richard Weaver pointed out in his fine book, Ideas Have Consequences, nominalism helped lead to the idea that nature, including human nature, is infinitely malleable by human ingenuity. Realism, whether ultra or moderate, helps to form a stable society in which human nature and nonhuman nature are both respected. Moderate realism avoids the problems of Plato’s doctrine of participation by placing the entity to which a universal term refers “in” the individual substance. Now substance, I believe, following Fr. Norris Clarke, is “substance-as-relation,” so that the intellectual content of the object observed would “seek” (metaphorically speaking) to communicate itself as far as possible–and the observer would strive to communicate was much as possible. Through such joining of information the mind becomes “intentionally one” with the object perceived, and thereby knows it, not exhaustively–but the actual information he receives is accurate to a degree. If this is the way communication between being and mind takes place, there is no need for transcendent Forms, but there is a need for “forms” with a small “f” to guarantee stable behavior patterns among natural kinds.

Does Thomism Really Avoid the Lockean Epistemological Gap between Idea and Thing?

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Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

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John Locke thought of himself as a realist (not in the Medieval sense of accepting the reality of universals, but in the modern sense of believing in a mind-independent world). Yet it seems that his philosophy leaves no room for any knowledge of that alleged world, as Berkeley and Hume pointed out. Locke believed that all knowledge comes by means of sense experience (thus he is an empiricist, as opposed to being a rationalist such as Descartes–it is ironic that in his hierarchical classification of knowledge Locke lists intuitive knowledge as first, demonstrative knowledge as second, and sensory knowledge as the lowest form of knowledge, barely to be called knowledge). Locke believes that knowledge arises by means of ideas in the mind. Whether these ideas are images or something else remains a subject of debate among Lockean scholars. In any case, Locke believes that that a quality is the power to produce an idea in the mind. Primary qualities are actually in the thing-in-itself, and our ideas of primary qualities are isomorphic with the actual structure of the physical substance we perceive. Primary qualities are measurable, and include size, shape, and mass. Secondary qualities are not in the thing itself; our ideas of secondary qualities are not isomorphic with the actual structure of the material substance. However, the primary qualities interact with human sensory organs and with the human brain to produce ideas of particular colors, odors, sounds, and tastes. Thus, secondary qualities have a partial basis in the thing-in-itself despite the lack of isomorphism between idea and thing.

The classic problem with this view is that Locke claims that we are only aware of our own ideas. We do not have any direct access to the material substance, to the thing-in-itself. In fact, substance is just that which underlies the qualities, a “something-I-know-not-what.” But if we lack access to the thing-in-itself, there is no way to compare our ideas to the actual object allegedly causing those ideas to determine which qualities are primary and which ones are secondary. Access to knowledge of extramental reality seems impossible, and a trip down the phenomenalist brick road of Berkeley, Hume, and the sense data theorists of the early twentieth century. Such an idealistic journey is not what Locke wanted to make. Idealism has serious difficulties; the source of the ideas (our own minds? the mind of God) remains a mystery, and the orderly nature of the phenomena we experience is left unexplained unless a person takes the Berkeleian route of positing God to explain natural laws. Direct realism is another option; the label of “naive realism” is a pejorative and is a blatant attempt to beg the question regarding the truth or falsity of direct realism. As for the straw men critics of direct realism try to knock down, no direct realist has denied the possibility of illusion. It is Berkeley and Hume’s phenomenalism that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality except by taking Hume’s route of more vivid ideas (which he calls impressions) being the most “real.”

Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas were both direct realists. Aquinas accepted the idea that knowledge comes through the “phantasm,” or sensory image, from which the mind extracts the intelligible content from a material substance. Thomists today often say that the difference from Locke’s view is that Locke believed we have access to ideas, not the thing in itself–it is the ideas that we know. In contrast, Aquinas believes that it is through the phantasm that a person gains some knowledge, albeit limited, of the thing-in-itself. But does this really avoid Locke’s problem or does it evade it by a kind of word game?

After reading more of how contemporary Thomists deal with the epistemological gap, I must back away from my earlier position that Thomism does not avoid an epistemological gap between mind and thing. Contemporary Thomists believe that humans have evolved as part of their environment, not as creatures separate from their environment. Even thought knowledge is of “external” things, there is a communication of intelligible content from object to subject–agent causation is not limited to human agents. The phantasm contains the information that human beings extract to help them to live in the environment in which they are embedded, to the point that the person becomes “intentionally one” with the thing-in-itself. While Duns Scotus posited intuitive knowledge of an object as existing in addition to a rather traditional Aristotelian account of knowledge, I am not sure that such an intuitive knowledge is necessary for human beings to get by in the world. If such intuitive knowledge exists (perhaps in the form of psi), such knowledge could speed up our apprehension of a thing and determine whether or not it is dangerous. But if the mind is not considered a container, but as one way of an organism’s acting in the world, that seems to eliminate the Lockean gap between idea and thing. The phantasm becomes that “by which” a person apprehends some aspects of the being of a thing.


The Value of Studying Latin and Greek

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The beginning of the Gutenberg Bible: Volume 1...

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Fall quarter at David Lipscomb College began in late September, when the cool breezes of fall invade the dying summer air. Just before three in the afternoon, excited and scared, I carried my Introduction to Greek textbook to class along with pen and notebook. My heart pounded when I sat in class, and a dour looking professor, Dr. Harvey Floyd, walked in and said, “Pos echeis moi?” He kept repeating the phrase. Eventually he told us to reply, “kalos echo.” He explained that “pos echeis moi” means “How are you?” (literally, “How are you to me”) and that kalos echo means, “I am fine” (literally, “I have fine”). He proceeded to introduce the Greek alphabet.

After that, I struggled to three Cs in first year Greek–Classical (Attic) Greek, not the koine Greek most often taught in Christian universities. The grades were real Cs, too–not “mer-Cs.” I know Dr. Floyd was disappointed, since he knew I was not really a C student–and so was I. I must confess that I did not enjoy first year Greek. The experience was like having my teeth pulled–slowly and without lidocaine. However, I learned more about English grammar in Greek class than I learned in twelve years of public schools. Later, I felt great joy in reading parts of the New Testament in Greek.

The knowledge I gained in Greek helped me later when I studied Latin on my own and took a third semester course in Latin readings for credit, in which I made an A. The discipline I gained–in studying for hours, in precision in my language–continues to be valuable as I juxtapose teaching philosophy, academic writing, and creative writing. If a student can do well in Greek or Latin, that student is ready and able to handle a university curriculum.

I support Latin programs in high schools, and believe that every student in a liberal arts college or university should take first and second year Latin or Greek. That makes me a dinosaur, even at my own school, where some professors consider the study of ancient languages to itself be an anachronism. Such a requirement would probably empty the classrooms of liberal arts colleges that are struggling to survive, especially if they are tuition-driven. At the very least, Greek and Latin should be an encouraged option. The study of these languages has a number of benefits:

1. It forces a student to be disciplined. Studying a classical language can require three to four hours of study a night. This discipline can be transferred to the other classes a student takes.

2. There is no better way to teach English grammar. To pass Latin or Greek, a student must have a commanding knowledge of English grammar.

3. Latin and Greek expose students to the heart of Western Culture. These are the actual languages spoken in ancient Greece and Rome, and they were important literary languages as well. Reading the work of Caesar, Cicero, Tacitus, Virgil, or in Greek Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, or Aristophanes in the original languages can help a student get to the heart of these class writers.

4. Students going into the sciences and into medicine can discover the roots of many of the technical terms used in those fields.

5. Christians can understand their unique literature better. Koine, or common, Greek is the language of the New Testament. With Greek, a Christian can read the New Testament without need of a translation. He can also read the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint. Students of Latin can read the Latin Vulgate. Students of both languages can read some of the early Church Fathers. I use Latin when I study St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, my favorite medieval philosophers.

There is no better way to truly educate a person than having him learn to read a classical language. I hope and pray that there will be a trend in favor of a revival of the study of Greek and Latin–the sooner the better.