John Duns Scotus and Prospects for a Theology of Science

Ron Choong
37 min readMar 19, 2018


John Duns Scotus’ (1266 -1308) contribution to the embryonic development of pre-modern science and its promise for a contemporary theology of science forms the thesis of this paper. The keys to the modern search for reliable knowledge are predictability and verifiability even though early western science was concerned with demonstrations and proofs, the standard trade tools of medieval philosophical theology.

The significance of Scotus’ epistemology and natural theology lies in the potential for interdisciplinary dialogue between science and Christian theology. The application of Scotus’ will as rationality, dual inclinations of the will to account for personal responsibility and teleological perspective of time suggest possibilities for renewed theological perspectives of science.

From an account of knowledge to an account of the nature of God, Scotus leads the uninitiated through the vagaries of argumentation, emerging with a reasoned expectation of prospects for a Christian theology of science.


This paper examines the epistemology of John Duns Scotus and its impact on late medieval excursions of philosophical theology, paving the way for the rise of modern science in Europe. An important ingredient for the development of empirical science is the assumption of regularity or order in universe and the notion of predictable results from repeatable experiments from which to draw reliable inferences. In the development of his natural theology from epistemology, Scotus introduced and legitimated empiricism, while demonstrating the existence of a first being who wills an ordered and intelligible universe, in which even the feeble human mind can discover sufficiently, if not exhaustively. Such acts of discovery form the essence of modern science.

Scotus imported empiricism in aid of his epistemology, ushering in an a posteriori demonstration for the existence of God. He sets up a rigorous apologetic for an expectation of a teleological universe, in which prescientific expectations are legitimate programs of inquiry. In departing from Augustine’ illumination and Anselm’s a priori proof, Scotus laid the foundation for a bridge uniting philosophy and theology in his decidedly deliberate natural theology.

Scotus’ careful use of philosophical theology created an interdisciplinary space for reflection, which permits theological discourse using philosophical language. Developing a voluntarist view of the will, he stakes a theological claim for empirical science and the fruits of reflective observation, making them legitimate enterprises of theology. It is a start to a theology of science. Scotus’ posit of an infinite, first being, a unity enjoying a triple primacy of causalities, exhibiting knowledge and free will, who loves the universe to its final end, preempts any argument for a universe by chance, inviting the reader to discover the ‘knowable will’ of God in the context of love. Love for Scotus is located in the voluntary will of God and is expressed in creation. To discover creation is to know and love God better.

In this view, doing science is not only possible at a certain level, it is a privilege and a duty, a function of the urge to be satisfied by the search but never satiated by the infinite good in this realm. Divine revelation is needed to aid us in ‘knowing’ this infinite good. This is the task of theology. Starting with philosophy (epistemology), Scotus developed a natural theology in which he conveyed doctrinal concepts, positing foundations for a theology of science. The goal is to expand the limited knowledge of the human sciences into the full knowledge of reality with the aid of divine revelation. Science in effect, is merely the promise of a fuller knowledge to come.

The central claim of this paper is the significance of Scotus’ epistemology for the development of a theology of science. While theology engages with philosophy, psychology, literature, history and a host of other specific disciplines, it has for the most part shied away from a formal and rigorous engagement with empirical science, although there has been theological studies and research projects pertaining to it. Indeed, the current interest in science and theology programs offer much hope and scope for a more holistic approach to knowledge. Yet there is no dedicated and consistent effort to construct a specifically Christian theology of empirical science in the sense of building a comprehensive worldview, which accounts for the provisional and tentative conclusions derived from scientific inferences based on observable phenomena interpreted through acceptably reflective equilibria. We start with a summary of Scotus’ metaphysics, epistemology and natural theology. Next, a review of his concept of the free will and its teleological imperatives lead to a conviction that the world is indeed ordered. We end this survey with the implications for the Cartesian-Baconian method and its offsprings in modern philosophy of science. The limited scope of this paper allows a mere cursory tease at what can be and it is the hope of the author that it may serve as a framework for further developments. While the stated claim is the potential for a theology of science, the tacit reward lies in a reasonable and defensible active participation of an apologetic theology in a scientific age. These then are the prospects, from epistemology to discovery.


Scotus discusses his account of metaphysics as a primer to epistemology.[1] For him, metaphysics or first philosophy, is the study of transcendentals, those of a thing’s attributes, which transcend the classification of predicates, proposed and seemingly listed by Aristotle in his Categories[2] . Aristotle argued that all predicates are either substantial (essential: informing us about the kind of thing the subject is) or accidental (informing us about the non-essential attributes of the subject). In Metaphysics, Aristotle himself realized the limits of his categories when he discovered that ‘being’ and ‘unity’ could not fit into any of them[3]. Medieval philosophy began to outline a theory of ‘transcendentals’ to make up for this lack. Scotus extended this list of transcendentals to include attributes instantiated by that being which itself could not be the subject of categorical attributes — God. Metaphysics is thus the discipline whose subject is the transcendental attributes, specifically being, of which the other transcendentals are in a sense, properties[4].

Of all the transcendental attributes, it seems intuitively true that ‘Being’ is the most basic in that there must be a sense in which substances, accidents and God all exist in reality. Transcendental attributes, which are coextensive with being, are unity, truth and goodness. Other being-coextensive attributes, which are non-categorical disjunctives, include necessary-or-contingent, actual-or-potential, infinite-or-finite, caused-or-uncaused, prior-or-posterior, independent-or-dependent, absolute-or-relative, exceeding-or-exceeded, simple-or-composite, same-or-diverse, equal-or-unequal etc. A fourth group of transcendental attributes are ‘pure perfections’ which can be predicated of God, whether common to God and creatures (such as knowledge, will, power etc.) or proper to God alone (omniscience, omnipotence etc.). From this theory of transcendentals, Scotus argues that we should be able to infer the existence of God. Metaphysics has the goal of proving the existence of God and is therefore, natural theology[5] For Scotus, it is ‘being-qua-being’ and not God, which is the subject of metaphysics. From this study of being-qua-being, we can derive at the existence of a first being/God through inference.


Scotus belonged to the Augustinian tradition, which imbibed at the fount of Plato, thus favoring mathematical and formal rather than empirical concepts of reality. By asserting that mathematics was ultimately derived from empirical data, Scotus managed to escape the shackles of Platonism and veer towards an Aristotelian posture. The main question Scotus faced was whether any knowledge was possible. Faced with skepticism about the validity of sensual experience, Scotus set out to demonstrate indubitable empirical procedures. He started by accepting the notion that since original sin has impaired human reason we are unable to acquire certain knowledge, for example, the proper knowledge of God. By proper he meant a perfect knowing. He thus distinguished between two forms of knowledge: the first is available to ordinary pathways of inquiry while the other is closed to unaided reason.

While we are able, with some effort, to obtain indirect, abstractive cognition — knowledge of universals — we are unable to secure direct, intuitive cognition, knowledge of explicit existence. At best, we are able to conceive through mediate relations and by the power of reason, arrive at a potential, a confused conception[6] of implicit essence. Unaided we are denied the power to intuit with immediate relation, any actual quiddity of explicit essence. Thus we can know God as a universal but not in particularity and uniqueness[7] . What about the scriptures? Is that an aid to reason by which we can know God properly? No, otherwise the mere existence of written words replace divine revelation, something beyond mere words. Thus, although many prophets including Paul received intuitive knowledge from God, we receive their writings discursively. We therefore take on trust, what they experienced directly. Yet all is not lost, we are still able to extract useful knowledge. By this account, Scotus argued that while the intellect is concerned with universals, the sensation is concerned with the direct immediate knowledge of singulars by intuition. For Scotus, the best of human intellectual achievements in the discoveries of science cannot replace the disclosures of God’s revelation.

In departing from Aquinas, he dispenses with any need for an epistemological intermediary such as the ‘phantasma’. For him, there is no justification for such a formation in the sense organs for changing sense-data to perceptual images. Thus although he is Aquinian in what intellect does know, he enlarges on what the intellect can know. For Scotus, the intellect cannot fully know singulars[8] as stated above, but with a confused knowledge of their haeccity[9] (‘thisness’), it can grasp a limited understanding of singulars, pertaining to earthly life. Scotus believed that even in discursive knowledge, a level of certitude is achievable. He outline four types of indubitable knowledge; self-evident knowledge[10], experiential knowledge[11], knowledge of one’s own actions[12] and things known through the senses[13].

Granting Scotus a minimalist concept of indubitable knowledge (something necessarily exercised in scientific methodologies), we see that he has begun to tilt the playing field somewhat. Moving away from a strict interpretation of the limits of human cognition, he now argues that within the limits of human creatureliness and the parameters of finitude, we can indeed form certain qualified judgments (the best we can have) so that even though we cannot intuitively know any object’s quiddity (in this life), we can, by discursive abstraction, in this natural world, argue for a (qualified) possibility of certainty. Thus, although human knowledge cannot be proper/perfect, we can know sufficiently even if not exhaustively.

For Scotus, certitude was grounded in the knowledge of self-evident propositions, induction and awareness of our own states. The other major contribution of Scotistic epistemology is the attribution of intuitive cognition (a direct, existential awareness of the intelligible object actually existing) to the intellect. In contrast, abstractive cognition crystallizes an object independently of whether it was present to the intellect in actual existence or not. (While both cognitions target the quiddity of the object rather than the sense particular, to intuit is to see a thing as it really is). It is this possibility of acquiring a level of certitude without illumination[14], which forms the springboard for Scotus’ natural theology.

Natural Theology

Natural theology was for Scotus, the vehicle by which to reach the minds of those not committed to a dogmatic assertion about God. Since God’s existence can be inferred, it is not irrational to consider God an object of the will. Scotus argues that the human will is contingent, free and is capable of a higher affection that that of merely securing its best advantage. However, we start not with God but with Scotus’ development of the argument for the existence of a first being and later, a discussion of will.

Scotus developed a natural theology in order to disclose truths of faith without appeal to divine authority. Whether this was due to a sense of egalitarianism or a mission for apologetics is unclear. In order to succeed, he had to devise a way to escape both invalid claims for reason and unnecessary reliance upon Christian dogma. The task at hand was to discover a system, which was at once consistent with reason and harmonious with the biblical doctrine of revelation. Although he was convinced that natural reason alone could reach some limited conclusions regarding creatio ex nihilo, general providence, truth and justice, the unity of divine nature and God’s supremacy, it was not sufficient. Reason needs help. The best of Greek philosophical apologetics came up with an unmoved mover or first mover. This was hardly up to the task and an inadequate description of God. An unmoved mover is irrelevant to things that are not moved and may even be appointed the task of moving by an unmoved non-mover. As for the first mover, it is not necessarily a necessity. Scotus sought a way to merge Greek apologetics with biblical revelation. Scotus wanted to argue that the Christian God was more than the first mover, but rather, the first necessary being.

At this juncture, the concept of univocity[15] becomes important. Any ability to ‘know’ God, even in a limited sense, is dependent upon God being knowable or intelligible, in a certain sense. Thus Scotus argues that God is a univocal concept of ‘being’, conceived of some concept univocal to Himself and to creatures. This univocal concept was ‘being’. It is an utterly abstract and indeterminable concept applicable to everything existent. Any subject whose existence implies no contradiction possesses a ‘being’ness. Being is the only quidditive concept we all share. Being is thus both univocal and applies to God as well as to creatures. God can be ‘known’ naturally, short of revelation. However, being can be either finite or infinite (that which exceeds the finite). In designating God as an infinite being, Scotus includes among God’s attributes, infinite goodness, infinite truth and pure perfections. However, to get this far, Scotus must demonstrate that in the realm of beings, some one infinite being can actually exist and then identify this supreme being as God without appeal to a priori judgments. This is the principal task of his natural theology.

Scotus identified three primacies of the first principle[16]: efficient, final and preeminent causalities. This triple primacy exists because in the realm of beings, it is logical to assume that among all the members, there has to be a first that includes no imperfection. In conclusions 3.1 to 3.6 of A Treatise on God as First Principle, he makes the case for the necessary existence of an uncaused first efficient cause. This follows from the absurdity of a contingent series of causes that cause. Thus, by dint of logical necessity, Scotus presupposes an absolute ultimate efficient cause. This mode of argument is followed in conclusions 3.7 to 3.10 and 3.11 to 3.14 in which he postulates the existence of some uncausable nature that can serve as ends (a first final cause) and some uncausable nature that exceeds all other causes (first preeminent cause). This triple primacy lies at the heart of his proof for the existence of God from reason alone, the primum effectivum, primum finitivum and ens eminentissimum (preeminent being).

The arguments forwarded, say for the existence of an uncaused final cause, seem to be a bottom-up extrapolation. In his eighth conclusion of chapter three (3.29) for example, he states that since everyone wills the end and works backward to what is needed prior to each segment from the end, so God also wills the end and effects or satisfies the will backwards. However, as God is perfect, not only is the will effected but it is a happy instance. It is the goodness of God that makes God the final cause. He does not say how God’s goodness moves Him qua final cause.

The Parisian condemnations of 1270 and 1277 distanced the scholastics from a wholesale embrace of Aristotle’s causa causarum in which every cause functions as both necessary and sufficient reason why something is produced[17]. In view of the need to grant God freedom in creating, contingency must be allowed. This is problematic for a watertight case, as Wolter acknowledges. Scotus ends up with a tangential statement asserting the view that ‘goodness’ is good only because God accepts it, not vice-versa. Thus, God is the genesis of perfect attributes and whatever He does…is good. It is not the case that good is an independent term of reference to which God aspires. Does this entail that, as Scotus argues, that God’s goodness ‘move’ him qua final cause? The jury is out on this matter.

It appears that in reality, perhaps the strongest buttress for his weaker arguments may be that there are no better options. He says so as much. In these demonstrations, Scotus reminds the reader that it is no advantage to the critic to deny him certain undefeated presuppositions. However, his appeal to the generosity of the reasonable reader does not take away from the cogency of his arguments. At first blush, this seems a feeble argument to assert his point, but it is not unlike the description of scientific excursions into inconclusive conclusions. Scientists, faced with inconclusive data, often make bold assertions unjustified although perhaps warranted by empirical evidence.

Karl Popper, in attempting to distinguish real science from pseudo-science, describes the construction of scientific theories as that of conjectures and refutations[18]. Until something comes along to falsify a stated hypothesis, the line of argument, imperfect as it may seem, is legitimate science. The method of trail and error is the best strategy and is a de facto method used in experimental as well as theoretical science. Sometimes, it is due to the indulgent tolerances of variable margins of error. For example, a Newtonian mathematical approximation (inaccuracy) is negligible at a time when the horse was the fastest means of transport. In the twenty-first century, the escape velocity (25,000 m.p.h.) of a Saturn V rocket, launched to escape the earth’s gravity, cannot tolerate high margins of approximations (errors). A small deviation can result in a huge deviation in the trajectory. So we turn to the corrective offered by Einsteinian physics. Einstein, in turn had always known that his field theories and postulates were themselves not perfect knowledge (incorrect), but served as tolerable approximations (errors), even though he found quantum mechanics (itself an approximation), the eventual corrective for his work, the bane of his life. Oftentimes, it is the unspoken premises in scientific research that learning is progressive, and any advance on finite knowledge is encouraged. Thus Popper never allowed his idea of objective knowledge to be the equivalent of perfect knowledge[19]. In this sense, he shares with Scotus, the concept of imperfect ‘knowing’. Does this prove that philosophical theology shares an epistemology with science? Perhaps. At the very least, Scotus’ method seems to anticipate contemporary scientific methodology.

Scotus further demonstrates that the first in virtue of one kind of primacy must necessarily be the first in virtue of the two others. Thus, these three primacies refer to one single nature. In conclusion (3.43) of the De Primo Principio, he stated “In some one and the same actually existing nature, there is the triple primacy in the aforementioned triple order, namely, of efficiency, finality and eminence”[20]. Thus, whatever nature possesses one primacy must possess the other two also.

The existence of a primacy of final end rejects a cosmogony of chance. It introduces a teleological dimension to reality and along with the univocal concept of being for God, makes God intelligible, at a certain level of understanding.

Scotus had established not only the possibility but also the necessity of a triple primacy. This first being is a unity. But why not more than unity? Is it possible for two individuals to possess equal triple primacies? Scotus entertains the idea and coolly shows that to maintain a duality would entail chaos. It would mean that two fully necessary beings exist in virtue of two natures, one common (that of a necessary being) and one individual (their own haeccity). How can a being possess two natures: one common, one individual? In his theory of individuation, the haeccity cannot be separated from the reality. Since both are necessary beings, the destruction of one does not impact the existence the other. On the other hand, if the two beings possess a partial necessity, then its non-necessary quality will pose a problem. It means that they only possibly exist. Mere possibly existing beings are not the proper members of necessary beings. In either case, incomprehensibility becomes the problem. Even if their ontological status is not in question, their independent wills will cause chaos and unpredictability. There is a likelihood that no universal laws can exist and universal regularity cannot come to be as each is powerful enough to undo the will of the other. All orderings can be disordered. Logic demands that. Scotus asserts that this first being understands an infinity of distinct things as there are an infinity of knowable things to know. In order to understand an infinity of things, the being must necessarily itself be infinite. With this attribute of infinitude comes intelligence and will.

The power of intelligence and volition gives rise to free-will. It is important to Scotus that the first being can will freely, so that whatever it wills is not due to necessity. This volition is therefore driven by love. Otherwise, the universe simply holds the first being captive, compelling it to will as it does. But since the volition is voluntary, its final cause, which is good, is also loving and we can say loving the best, loves itself. How and why does the first being love itself? It has been established that the first being possesses as its essence, knowledge and free volition. The ability to know from intelligence and the ability to act from will to act allow the first being to do anything it loves. But it must first know what to do before it can act in love. Since nothing is loved unless it is known, it is knowledge and love of the preeminent final end that actuates the first efficient cause to act. But since, by the unity of the triple primacy, the first final cause is the first efficient cause, the first being therefore acts because it knows and loves — itself.

From earlier descriptions of the first being, we draw the conclusion that the knowledge of the first being is eternal, distinct, actual, necessary and prior by nature to the existence of these things-known-in-themselves.

How did Scotus improve on the Anselmian formula for the proof of the existence of God? While Anselm described God as a being greater than which nothing greater can be conceived, Scotus described God as a being that, if one can conceive of him without contradiction, it would be impossible to think of a greater being without contradiction. This is because the greatest being conceived without contradiction can actually exist in reality and must avoid possible contradiction. What can exist of itself, necessarily exist. He advanced the Anselmian formula by going straight to the necessity of existence from capability rather than urge it existence from mere possibility. While Anselm sought to show that God’s existence is neither impossible nor absurd from a priori argument, Scotus first demonstrated the triple primacy, unity and infinitude of a first being who knows and freely wills, from a posteriori arguments and asserted that it exists because it can.

For Scotus, this first being, is God. Scotus’ natural theology makes three important points for the purpose of this paper. (1) The first being exists and is the genesis of reality in the universe, (2) the universe has a final end and is therefore not random and the universe is ordered and (3) the universe can be examined and known. The first point claims authorship of reality while the latter two points permit and endorse human discovery of reality, the discover we know as science. Next, we consider the nature of the will.

The Will

Scotus first discusses the nature of the human will (he takes a bottom-up position, mindful of his natural theology approach) and then extrapolates this to how at the maximally perfect situation; the first being (God)’s (free) will operates.

The Will as contingent power for opposites

Scotus’ notion of contingency of the will engages a special understanding of freedom. There is a twofold freedom that arises from the will as a power for opposites:

1. Free as in possessing the capacity for successive opposite acts, and

2. Free as in possessing a simultaneous real, active power to possibly will the opposite.

He does not mean a simultaneous willing of two actions but rather a tension by which two opposite wills are held at the same time, although only one potential enjoys actualization.

The will is therefore a power for opposites apart from any succession or change, for there is no succession at an instant. This is a departure from the concept of free choice found in Lombard’s Sentences, where free choice is available to the future but not to the past or present. This intuition tips the notion of the present ‘now’ to the past rather than the future.

The question asked is whether an instant in time is ever static? Does cognition play a role in either delaying the instant in the now or is it immune from affecting time? This is a topic pregnant with implications, but we cannot dwell too long on it. Suffice it to say that Scotus tends to argue from a posture of avoiding incoherence and absurdity based on accepted norms of rationality rather than from claims supported by proofs-positive. However, this is commonly used in medieval logic so he is not to be faulted.

The similarity to modern scientific methodology has already been noted. It is worth noting that with all the advances of technology at our disposal, the outer reaches of both contemporary physics and biology embraces philosophical tools in their attempts to construct descriptive configurations for theory testing. A clear example is in neo-Darwinistic evolution. Various theses submitted get hearings because there are no good competing options available. The compulsion to believe an attractive explanatory theory is strongest when the passage of time fails to turn up refutations. Returning to Scotus, we find him positing a rudimentary doctrine of time with a non-deterministic ‘present’, in contradistinction with standard views at the time.

The standard medieval discussion of the ‘now’ was the ‘fixing’ of the present as deterministic concept. This presumption rested upon a belief that to be the present, it must already be, and therefore cannot not-be. To allow for even the possibility to be a not-be is to extinguish any possibility of being a be or to be a be which is necessary for a present to be … a present.

Scotus argues that to make the present determined is to render the will necessary and therefore not a contingent and more importantly, a free cause, since the causal nature of the will is determined only when it operates as a cause. To sustain a concept of free will, the will must be contingently related to its act of volition at the very instant of acting. It must have a real and viable power for the opposite of what it wills at that moment in time — at the present! Whether the power for opposites include the notion of nolition is not altogether clear. Where nolition is a mere contrary to volition, it must be included. However, Scotus describes three modes of effects, volition, nolition and no action. Is inaction a volitionally engineered response or is it true abstention? If not an abstention, it is volitionally so or negligently so, and ad infinitum. No matter, the clear implication of Scotus’ presupposition that the will must be free demands a contingency because he cannot conceive of a free will that is also necessary. Scotus conception of contingency of will is a major break from an Aristotelian understanding, where something is contingent if its opposite can actually occur at another time or point of instance. In Scotus, the power for opposite holds simultaneously. Thus, the issue is simultaneity[21], indeed, an instantaneously existent will.

Scotus’ instantaneously existent will is derived from the question of whether an angel could have sinned from the first moment of creation? He argued that even for the angel, the first ‘will’ must be produced, not necessarily, but contingently, and therefore, freely. No necessary willing is free-willing. Only when there is the option of not willing (nilling) can the will be free. No cause can be both necessary and free at the same time. Therefore, if a cause is free, it must not be necessary, but contingent and bear the possibility of nolition.

B) The Will with dual inclinations and as Rational Power[22]

The will is contingent, and experiences a dual inclination[23] (affectio) for natural and voluntary affections. Each tends to its proper perfection. The perfection of natural inclinations is achieved with hope and desire while the voluntary inclinations are obtained through charity and love. The former, he calls affectio commodi, a natural inclination for the best advantage of the subject, driven by the senses and acting irrationally. The latter he calls affectio iustitiae, a voluntary inclination for justice even to the detriment of the subject, driven by knowledge and therefore acting rationally. It is this tension between natural and voluntary inclinations that explains why a truly rational will can transcend the natural desires. Knowing that rationality as a concept is highly prized in philosophy, Scotus hijacks this term and crowns it with terms such as justice, knowledge, free etc. Appropriating Aristotle’s distinction between rational and non-rational powers[24] Scotus advances a similar distinction between natural and voluntary powers, the former being irrational while the later, rational. The human will may be expressed as the interplay between natural and voluntary powers. This paves the way for his treatment of the will as rational power.

Aristotle defined rational powers as those capable of producing contrary effects. Scotus added that the primary division of all active powers is between natural and voluntary. A natural power is one, which will issue in a determinate act necessarily and to its greatest capacity unless obstructed while a voluntary/free power is not so determined. Therefore, it may (1) act to its greatest advantage, (2) act to the contrary or (3) not act at all.

Since the will for Scotus is rational[25], it is also really self-determining (indeterminacy). Rather than suffering from a defect or insufficiency of power leading to indeterminacy, the will’s indeterminacy[26] is a display of its abundance of power capable of contrary effects. In placing within the notion of voluntary powers the will and rationality, Scotus made the natural powers the home of the intellect and the irrational. Thus, both nature and all things deemed ‘natural’ as well as intellect was not, strictly speaking, rational. This displacement weakened the claim of the intellect and nature to rationality and made the will the only truly rational (voluntary) power as opposed to natural powers that are irrational. This reversal of Aristotle and Aquinas relegated the rationality of the intellect to a diminished sense, one in which it is rational insofar as it is needed for the action of the will. The effect of this is that the will now replaces the intellect as the primary source of rational power and rationality now resides in voluntary rather than natural powers.

The will, for Scotus, is not just an active power but also an appetite[27] with inclinations. By adopting an Anselmian distinction between an affection or inclination for the advantageous (affectio commodi) and an affection for justice (affectio iustitiae), he sought to distance the will and perhaps protect it from natural determinism. As interpreted by Scotus, affectio commodi is the inclination for self-fulfilment characteristic of natural desire. The perfection of the agent is the all consuming passion. The affectio iustitiae is an inclination, not for the advantage of the agent necessarily, but for the good itself. The will possesses an innate affection for the just and this is the source for and basis of its liberty. The freedom of the will is free because it has the power to incline to the good or the ‘just’. It is this affection, which enables the will to transcend the determination of the natural appetite for self-fulfillment by loving the supreme good. This supreme good, Scotus proclaims, is God. The supreme good is to love God for God’s sake or lesser goods for their intrinsic worth.

This theory possesses much currency in the contemporary debate over the power of science and unfettered reason from which to derive morality. E. O. Wilson’s best-selling “Consilience” argues for a Spinozan ideal. For theologians and ethicists who reject the idea of consilience as a remedy for social and political ills, affectio iustitiae provides a platform to challenge evolutionary socio-psychology. The human genome, upon which Wilson’s argument relies, is programmed for pleasure and survival, not morality. For that we need a perspective that transcends material desires of the moment. This perspective comes only from the inclination for justice.

Scotus’ treatment of the human will acknowledges the tension inherent in the human condition, the plurality of attractants to which we gravitate. In excising any excuse that might survive a moral challenge, Scotus preempts any escape by urging the reader to consider the non-rationality of ‘natural’ powers and the importance of voluntary powers to trigger the capacity of the will as rational power. This counter-intuitive move in support of the Christian doctrines about God’s love and our love for God is buttressed by his claim that to love God is truly to experience free will and fulfill the proper perfection of humankind, since it offers no immediate and perceptible advantage to do so. This move must be noted in the context of his general position that God cannot be known in absolute terms through reason alone, but also through divine revelation.

Consider the will as appetites coupled with reason, says Scotus. Such appetites naturally incline to their proper perfections and for humanity, this leads to an inclination for free will (true liberty). It is only when true liberty is obtained can humans love God for Godself. This state of purity is in contradistinction to the ‘natural’ state of humanity in which such an action is impossible. In order to achieve liberty, the will must be able to overcome its natural inclinations, act upon knowledge and respond rationally, in which its perfection is achieved through charity. Thus as a power, the will can be free and serve rationally. This sequence is described in the following manner. From this concept of free will, one can see that God might possess a will as least just as free. But since God is perfect in every sense, he would not need to combat the natural inclinations. Rather, that which God wills is good and just. The good and free will of God loves the good for its own sake.

The implications of Scotus’ theory of the will are immense. We shall not discuss the ramifications for ethical theory and morality but rather limit ourselves to the implications for philosophy of science.

Free Will and Science

Students of science rarely refer to literature originating earlier than the sixteenth century, those of philosophy often neglect the history of ideas between Aristotle and Descartes and many theology students have been encouraged that significant theological thinking is a product of the nineteenth century. Yet the origins of modern science lie in the conviction that the world is open to rational investigation and is orderly rather than chaotic-a conviction, which came to birth, was systematically explored and developed during the height of the Middle Ages. As the common language of scholarship, Latin enabled a free flow of untranslated scholarship across much of Europe, unparalleled in modern history and unlikely to be enjoyed by future generations of scholars. As for the charge against them of relying on the authority of religion, their crime is no more nor less than contemporary appeals to authorities. In being somewhat more open and unashamed of the identity of their epistemological framework, they become easier targets than today’s tacit reference to unmentioned authorities, such as the trust given to friends, teachers, colleagues and acquaintances. Thus our reliance on authority, although less focused and explicit than those of most medieval thinkers, is no less naive and uncritical [28].

If as Scotus argues, will as rationality is possible, then knowledge through ‘natural’ means alone (science) cannot claim primacy as the most manicured form of rationality. Science would have to account for the role of will in human rationality[29]. This means at the minimum, that rationality is not a passive mode of existence but an active state of being; scientific rationality must answer Scotus’ claim that rational knowledge is voluntary in the sense of denying the attraction of the senses for maximal personal advantage, and we have to ask how justice and therefore ethics play a role in scientific investigation. In this paper, we shall discuss the active state and voluntary nature of Scotistic rationality.

That rationality is an active state and that it is voluntary guides Scotus’ principles of scientific reasoning. It mandates the search for knowledge as an act of free will. This was partly his refutation of skeptics who say we can never know about God or even whether God exists. To get a better grasp of the exercise of free will in the acquisition of knowledge, we turn to his theory of ‘knowable knowledge’.

From his Ordinatio[30] and Lectura[31], we learn that his theory of knowledge is inductive rather than deductive. Of the things that can be known, he includes three in which we need certain knowledge. They are (1) analytical knowledge (knowledge of principles defined by their terms), (2) truth from experience (empirical knowledge) and (3) self-knowledge (from our own actions)[32]. We shall focus only on Scotus’ concept of experiential knowledge with reference to contemporary situations.

While his commitment to observational data is uncompromising, his use of logic and coherence is striking. He is unfazed by the issue of misperceptions and visual aberrations. Armed with such logical axioms[33] as “Nothing equal in size with another is greater than it” and “No body that is soft bends a body that is hard”[34], Scotus assures his readers that the thinking mind with prior knowledge is not easily deceived. He asserts that the law of cause and effect governs all natural phenomena. This statement of Scotus is in fact, tautologous and leads to an infinite regress. We cannot affirm a phenomenon as natural until we know that it is governed by cause and its effect, but to know this, we have to determine if it is a natural phenomenon. Thus whether a cause and effect can be demonstrated does not prove its naturalism. Scotus also observed that our powers of visual acuity enables us to perceive specific patterns and thus sense movement as well as distinguish between static and dynamic regularities. We habitually look for reason, cause and effect to account for changes. Aristotle referred to this reasoning process as demonstration (apodeixis)[35].

The importance of reasoning is that it results in epistemic knowledge rather than mere opinion (doxa). It is the rise of epistemic knowledge in modern science and the perception that revelation in Christianity is opinion (doxology) that led to demise in church authority. When an inference from a principle to a conclusion takes place, it bestows on epistemic knowledge the rank of certain truth. This outstrips dogmatic theology in the perception of the reader, since truth seems to have been demonstrated in one case while merely asserted in another. Scotus makes the effort to tie up loose ends by treating all natural effects as necessary ones and thus not free acts of the will. Free acts are voluntary; they are not-natural; they are super-natural; they are ‘miraculous’?

If it is the case that the free acts are supernatural acts such as miracles, it must be the case that while scientific naturalism accounts for natural acts, it cannot account for free (voluntaristic/supernatural) acts. Yet we cannot say that all free acts are miraculous acts since humans also enjoy free acts (affectio iustitiae). However, in the case of God, since God is the freest of beings, it must be the case that if and when God acts freely and wills as such, we will not immediately recognize it as an explicable event. Science, as a naturalistic power cannot account for a voluntary power.

While the deductive approach in modern science draws general principles from many observations, then construct theories to be tested before defining universal laws, Scotus had a theory of scientific induction. He argued for a situation where the intellect has simple knowledge of a specific effect. It then seeks a possible natural cause from all the candidates, dismissing others by elimination and concludes that a singular cause for the effect must be the reason[36]. This is remarkably similar to the explanation of Popper in his conjectures and refutations.

In the light of the dominance of science in our everyday world, philosophical theology must account for the place of observational and theoretical science in contemporary theology. In appropriating the importance and significance of Scotus’ reflections on the will as rationality, we need to examine the implications of a Scotistic understanding of human rationality for scientific conclusions derived from inconclusive scientific investigation. Is there a proper place for scientific discovery in theology? How can theology serve the needs of science?

Prospects for Discovery

Any prospects for the construction of a theology of science faces the challenge of meshing together two fields of inquiry, both of which lay claim to knowledge-statements. The basic difference is that while scientific knowledge bears the imprimatur of empirical evidence and the likelihood of advancement through refutation, theological knowledge seems to pertain to eternal truths. The arguments that they are operators of mutually exclusive domains are no longer tenable. Not only do scientific statements de facto influence axiological commitments, theological commitments battle scientific conclusions in both the academy and church. We live in a world where we are informed by both fields. It is therefore inadequate for the scientist to hide behind science as a value-free enterprise since moral-laden decisions are made daily, directing the footprints of research. By the same token, the church enjoys and depends upon the technological successes produced by scientific study. It is impossible for either side to disclaim interest of the other. Thus the prospects of a theology of science as well as a scientific approach to theology hold promises of interdisciplinary cooperation, affirming a check on the excesses of each other. If both fields describe reality, it must be the case that reconciliation is possible.

In Scotus, we find reasons for theology to admit philosophical discipline in its self-diagnostic and trim off unsustainable commitments where the reasonably safe conclusions of observational science narrow the margins of error. Tools such as linguistics, historiography, archaeology, literary criticism and even the necessarily reductionistic empirical research programs should be welcomed in theological reflection. This is not to filter theology through the sieve of science but rather to use the fruits of scientific labors to minimize avoidable errors. On the other hand, the philosophy of science offers a bridge through which proper credit and intellectual debt to theology in the history of science should reduce tensions and suspicion. Scotus drew an unbroken line of philosophical development from epistemology to a teleological understanding of the universe. Despite the refusal of many scientists to question their prior commitments to an ateleological universe in the light of very specific trends in history, the heuristic orders of the universe forms the very basis of modern science.

The natural theology of Scotus frees theology from a dogmatic assertion of God’s existence. While this is not a reflection of the theological enterprise, it supports the historic church’s contention that as a public witness to God’s engagement with humanity, we are not limited to the tools of reflection only, but also to the physical ‘fingerprints of God’ found in the empirical sciences. In shifting from a largely rational to an empirically-friendly epistemology, Scotus significantly expanded the scope of scientific discovery, closing its gap with the revelationary disclosure of God. This is a call to revisit the implications for a natural theology, which seeks not to be at the pinnacle of faith but as a servant of discourse, until a common space for dialogue matures sufficiently, when we can expect a true theological understanding of the proper place of scientific discovery in the doctrines of the church.

What is discovery if not the acquisition of hitherto revealed knowledge. In this sense, the discoveries of modern science, whether by accident, experimentation, intuition or insight, are absolutely dependent upon an ordered universe. Scientific discovery may be seen as a form of obtaining knowledge indirectly from God. Scotus’ theory of experiential knowledge is a case in point[37]. In it, he refrains from appealing to supernaturalism in the first instance, recognizing within the natural order, the undeniable activity of God.

Scotus’ theory of experiential knowledge provides a direct lesson for contemporary discourse between theology and science. While Scotus’ epistemology privileges naturalism as the most common form of reality, this should not alarm Christians who believe in the supernatural. Scotus merely suggests a probabilistic apparatus to avoid unnecessary a priori judgments. This may be appropriated to reconcile the issue of say, Darwinian evolution and orthodox Christian faith. The former as science may be permitted to rely on naturalistic answers in the first instance provided it is open to other non-naturalistic proposals; not as scientifically falsifiable facts, but as alternative explanations. In the same manner, the latter, as doctrinal theology, may be the wiser to also allow for naturalistic explanations of phenomena in the first instance; not as a denial of God’s sovereignty, but as an empirical mode of explanation, while keeping the option of a supernatural explanation at the ready. The scientist-theologian may pursue a line of inquiry, which acknowledges the propensities of naturalistic accounts of reality not as atheistic proclamations but as one manner of divine activity while cognizant of miracles as demonstrations or vestiges of another mode of divine activity.

It is often the case that familiarity breeds contempt. Over any period of history, exciting events soon become commonplace and lose its appeal or at least, glamour. It is no accident that most of the early modern scientists had a confessional commitment to a God who performed miracles[38]. As scientific explanations grew, it led to technological advances that directly affect the lives of people. This state of affairs left the church at a disadvantage in a popularity contest. As more and more ‘miracles’ were shown to be natural explanations, the demarcation between supernatural and natural phenomena became blurred. The qualitative difference became more one of degree or quantity. It became the expectation that miracles seem so only because science has yet to turn its attention on the as yet inexplicable phenomena. The strong naturalism and scientism in the Tractatus-Logico-Politicus of Spinoza is a case in point. As more and more once spectacular phenomena become normal phenomena, miracles become normal events. Although we have perhaps more awareness of unexplained mysteries as knowledge of what we do not know increases, the popularity of science as the most reliable source of new knowledge breeds and inculcates a skepticism leading to a hermeneutic of suspicion. A factor in the demise of theological authority may be its less than full support for experiential and empirical discoveries. In Scotus, we find relief. He says that we discover experientially. Even theoretical physics and speculative biology are heavily based on experimental work for its foundations, confirmations or refutations. Thus Scotus’ natural theology welcomes science as an art. What art is science?

Science is the art of acquiring knowledge by learning. Since we can know and we ought to know, that which we ought to do comports with the will of God. As we can only will that which we know, learning is a step to worshiping God. Indeed learning is a legitimate exercise of worship, perhaps the most rewarding one.


We have seen that in successfully introducing empiricism as a legitimate element of epistemology, moving away from Plato and into the playing field of Aristotle, Scotus developed a more user-friendly natural theology, one which was able to argue for an a posteriori demonstration for the existence of a first being (God). From this vantage point, he defended a concept of will as rationality and by extension, God’s will as voluntary and loving. In morally privileging affectio iustitiae over affectio commodi, he then frames the will of God in the context of the infinite good and love. The perfections of this first being (God) and its attendant will to a final end permit Scotus to articulate an ordered rather than a chaotic universe. This sets the stage for the inference that a religious epistemology is consistent with a scientific thirst for knowledge.

The significance of this thesis may be better understood in the light of the contemporary dissonance between science and theology. Unless and until an interdisciplinary platform for constructive dialogue can be constructed, the doctrine of N.O.M.A. (non-overlapping magisteria) will dominate the academy, diluting the impact of theology to inform the construction of a comprehensive, contemporary worldview, thus marginalizing the contributions of a theology for an understanding of reality. If Christian theology is to be a comprehensive lens through which to ‘know’ the reality in which we exist, it must learn to account for all observable phenomena, despite initial misgivings. This insight into the importance of religious epistemology is perhaps Scotus’ greatest contribution to modernity, guiding natural philosophy through natural theology into a changing world dominated by empirical science. It is now the task of the theologian to go beyond Scotus and include a viable theology of science, arguably the most manicured form of rationality known today. We ignore this challenge to our peril and risk consigning theology in this age of science to a status of a period curiosity.

Selected Bibilography

Primary Texts

Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle Jonathan Barnes, ed. 2 volumes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984

Aristotle. Physics: Books III and IV Edward Hussey, translator Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993

Duns Scotus, John. A Treatise on God as First Principle. Allan B. Wolter, ed. and translator. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1966

Duns Scotus, John. God and Creatures: The Quodlibetal Questions Felix Alluntis and Allan B. Wolter, translators. Princeton: University Press, 1975

Duns Scotus. Philosophical Writings. Allan B. Wolter, ed. and translator. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987

Duns Scotus’ Early Oxford Lecture on Individuation Allan B. Wolter, translator. Santa Barbara, CA: Old Mission Santa Barbara, 1992

Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality Allan B. Wolter, ed. and translator. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1997

English translations of selections from John Duns Scotus’ Lectura, Ordinatio and Reportatio Parisiensis

Secondary Texts

Cross, Richard. Duns Scotus Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

Frank, William A. and Alan B. Wolter Duns Scotus, Metaphysician West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1995

Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations London: Routledge, 1976 (1962)

_____________, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979 (1972)

Wolter, Allan B. The Philosophical Theology of John Duns Scotus Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990

[1] William A. Frank and Alan B. Wolter Duns Scotus, Metaphysician (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1995) viii

[2] Categoriae 4 (1b25–28)

[3] Metaphysica 3.3 (998b20–27)

[4] Richard Cross. Duns Scotus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 148

[5] Ibid., 148

[6] Frank and Wolter Duns Scotus, Metaphysician. 109

[7] Ibid., 115

[8] This idea of singular stems from the idea that no two individuals are identical qua individuals. Thus even when two items seem to be identical phenotypically or morphologically, their ‘thisnesses’ (haeccity) are unique. See Duns Scotus’ Early Oxford Lecture on Individuation Allan B. Wolter, translator. (Santa Barbara, CA: Old Mission Santa Barbara, 1992) xiii-xiv. In his theory of individuation, Scotus borrows from Alexander of Aphrodisias’ solution to Boethius problem of universals in positing a middle layer (formalitates) between the universal and the particular. It is here that haeccity resides.

[9] A discussion of Scotus theory of ‘individuation’ and concept of haeccity as an individuating principle must needs be sacrificed to stay within the bounds of this paper. See Duns Scotus’ Early Oxford Lecture on Individuation Allan B. Wolter, translator. (Santa Barbara, CA: Old Mission Santa Barbara, 1992) xxv-xxvi

[10] This is rather like a Kantian analytical knowledge, rejected by W. V. O. Quine in his landmark ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, where he dismisses the analytic-synthetic distinction.

[11] By observation and induction, this doxastic approach relies on probabilism and reliabilism.

[12] Like the Cartesian type, it starts with a presupposition all its own.

[13] This is like a representative theory of perception.

[14] Scotus departs from the Augustinian theory of illumination necessary for knowledge of God, which enjoyed the support of Henry of Ghent. In this theory, Augustine posited God as the primary object of the intellect and that the essence of a creature was truly known only by reference to its eternal archetype or idea in the mind of God. Scotus argues that being is the primary object of the intellect, not God. This presupposes a univocal concept of being for intelligibility to function. At stake for Scotus was the legitimacy of claiming that God can be known outside of divine revelation.

[15] Duns Scotus. Philosophical Writings. Allan B. Wolter, ed. and translator. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 19. In his Oxford Commentary, Scotus defined univocity as a concept the unity of which is sufficient to involve a contradiction if one affirms and denies the idea of the same subject at the same time. Thus a univocal concept of ‘being’ of God is one in which while both God and man ‘is’ in the same sense, they are ‘is’ as opposed to ‘not-is’ in a different sense. God is opposed to ‘not-being’ in an ‘absolute-being’ sense while we are opposed to ‘not-being’ in a ‘contingent-being’ sense. Thus, while man and God can be affirmed of the univocal concept of ‘being’, we cannot be denied such a concept at the same time since it would create a contradiction because the denial for me and for God would not refer to the same opposition but be qualitatively different.

As opposed to equivocation (uncertainty or ambiguity), univocity has sufficient unity to serve as the middle term of a syllogism. Thus, when we say that the word ‘being’ is used in God and creatures, it refers to the same quality of existence for both God and creatures. Only in such a case does it avoid equivocation.

[16] John Duns Scotus. A Treatise on God as First Principle. Allan B. Wolter, ed. and translator. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1966) 42–71

[17] Duns Scotus. A Treatise on God as First Principle. 252

[18] Karl R. Popper Conjectures and Refutations London: Routledge, 1976 (1962)

[19] Karl R. Popper Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979 (1972)

[20] Duns Scotus. A Treatise on God as First Principle. 62

[21] It is tempting to wonder how this will play out in the current Einsteinian understanding of spacetime in which there is no absolute simultaneity, where the worldlines of every particle sets its own simultaneity and that no two particles, including normal beings, actually share a simultaneity.

[22] Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality Allan B. Wolter, ed. and translator. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1997) 136

[23] Ibid., 153–155

[24] Metaphysica IX

[25] Here, Scotus seems to be ignoring the affectio commodi element of the will, which by his account, is irrational. Actually, he uses the word rational in two ways. First he regards the affectio commodi as irrational in the sense that it is not absolutely rational from the point of view of an omniscient God, but the confluence of the two affections which form the human will as a composite is rational in an earthly, limited, sense.

[26] While determinacy for Scotus is incompatible with freedom, it is not necessarily the case that indeterminacy leads to freedom. In leads to randomness. This caveat is important to avoid misreading Scotus.

[27] Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality. 139

[28] Brian Davies in his forward to Richard Cross. Duns Scotus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), vii-viii

[29] A further tangent from which to examine might be the issue of rationalization in scientific discourse. When decisions about the direction of research projects are made, pragmatic considerations often receive more attention than purely value-neutral ones.

[30] Ordinatio I, d.3, qq.1–2

[31] Lectura I, d.3, q.3

[32] Frank and Wolter Duns Scotus, Metaphysician. 125

[33] I have refrained from using the word analytical statements to avoid getting mired in a defense against Quine’s rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction.

[34] Frank and Wolter Duns Scotus, Metaphysician. 131

[35] Ibid., 168

[36] Frank and Wolter Duns Scotus, Metaphysician. 169

[37] Frank and Wolter Duns Scotus, Metaphysician. 129

[38] This is not a blanket statement that just because so many scientists in seventeenth century England were clergymen that science and theology went hand in glove. One need only note that Sir Isaac Newton had to petition the Crown to grant him a dispensation at Cambridge, releasing him from the mandate that all Fellows and faculty members sign a statement agreeing to take Holy Orders in the Church of England at the earliest convenience. He was indeed granted that dispensation and never became the Rev. Isaac Newton.



Ron Choong

I am an interdisciplinary investigator and explorer of science and religion