Scotus’s argument (pt. 2, w/ response)

Scotus points to a sort of 20-Questions game that starts with a guy saying “I’m thinking of something that exists” according to the rules of the game, you know the thing exists, but you don’t know if it’s God or a creature, substance or accident, instrument or agent, etc.

St. Thomas, however, seems to think that all indetermination in thought has to reduce to some indetermination in things, or that a generic thought has to correspond to some potency in things.

that from which the difference constituting the species is derived, is always related to that from which the genus is derived, as actuality is related to potentiality. For animal is taken from the sensitive nature by way of concretion, since a thing is called an animal when it has a sensitive nature; or rational when it it has an intellectual nature. [Animal enim sumitur a natura sensitiva per modum concretionis; hoc enim dicitur animal, quod naturam sensitivam habet, rationale vero sumitur a natura intellectiva, quia rationale est quod naturam intellectivam habet]

The same argument holds good in other things

ST. 1.4.5. co

So logical determinations are seen as real natures “in modo concretionis” which STA takes as equivalent to saying that a thing has some real nature. Thus there is no indeterminate concept which is not at least the attempt to speak about some indeterminate nature.

But then what do we say about the twenty-questions game? Presumably STA wouldn’t deny that you could play the game, but only that the thought you started with was of real existence. Perhaps he’s call it a failed attempt to visualize existence or a counter-factual visualization of existence; one that could only be true if God had a divine nature instead of being it.

This is the foundation of the strange Thomistic claim that God is beyond being.

Scotus’s argument

Scotus: Take any thing A. if you are certain it is B but not certain it is a X, then B and X are distinct concepts. But we can be certain God exists without knowing if he is finite or infinite; and we can know something exists without knowing if it is a substance or accident. Therefore there is one concept of all being, whether finite or infinite; substance or accident; or even creator or creature (since you can know that there is something but be in doubt over whether it is created or not).

Thomas seems to agree with the minor premise, since he first proves that God exists and only later proves he is infinite; and he proves that God exists by starting with the existence of sensible things, which can only be shown to be creatures after the proof.

Brentano on the spirituality of the self

1.) Minimally, the self requires the unity of conscious experience, meaning the unity of some being that performs some action, not just the unity of the action.

2.) If the unity of the self is non-spiritual, then it is in the brain.

3.) But the brain is a collection of specialized modules and organelles: this part taking care of memory; that part taking care of focus; another part taking care of releasing dopamine, etc.

4.) A collection of modules would suffice to explain a unity of an action, but not the unity of a being performing an action.

5.) So the brain can’t suffice to explain what is requisite for the self.


Notice that the inability to locate the unity of the self in the nervous system affects our ability even to say its action is unified: actions are done by something. Conversely, this unity of consciousness is within the specialized modules or organelles.

Divine real possibility

Brentano argues, to my mind persuasively, that the kernel of truth in the Ontological Argument is that if God is possible, then he exists. So what arguments might one give that God is really possible?

1.) The Leibnizian argument. In the opening of the Metaphysics, Leibniz claims that what we mean by God is the most perfect being, and that if some highest degree is not possible to something, it is not a perfection. By contraposition, by calling something perfect, we mean that some maximal is really possible.

2.) The logical argument. I’m not a fan of this one, but the idea is that whatever is conceivable without contradiction is possible, and God is putatively conceivable without contradiction.

3.) The failure of the flagship argument for divine impossibility. The Argument from Evil will always be the paradigm argument for the impossibility of God, but over the last few years it’s become clear that it cannot be based on mere evil or suffering (which anyone can verify the existence of) but has to be based on gratuitous evil or suffering. But we have no ability to verify whether there are any such things as gratuitous evils, and even if did we would have to stand at the end of history to do so.  This leaves only the Argument from Incoherence, which is more obscure and difficult to make.

4.) From the possibility of human happiness. Here we’d appeal to a variant of Summa T 1.12.1: the fulfillment of anything seems to be possible, even if rare, and the fulfillment of a being that seeks first causes is to know an uncaused cause. In the order of ends and agents this cannot be either natural laws nor the universe.

The Euthyphro problem of consciousness

A: So tell me about this Euthyphro problem of consciousness.

B: I take one version of the Euthyphro problem as this: abstract things have the perfection of being intelligible, eternal and unchanging, and whatever has the perfection of life, action and knowledge is concrete. So when we say God is the most perfect being, which do we mean?

A: St. Thomas says we speak of God as abstract when we want to talk about his simplicity and concrete when we want to talk about his existence.

B: That’s a fine rule for speech, but what are we supposed to think? Everyone repeats Thomas’s account of God as ipsum esse subsistens without noticing just what a scandal it is. “Esse” is an abstraction, in fact the maximal possible abstraction, but the subsistent is precisely what we abstract from to make any abstraction! St. Thomas is saying that God has two perfections which, for us, are necessarily exclusive.

A: All right, so let that be the Euthyphro problem: what’s the Euthyphro problem of consciousness?

B: I think a similar problem arises when we try to ask what consciousness is.

A: I don’t get it. My consciousness is mine, so it is concrete.

B: But the abstract just is the mind as actualized. The mind, at least when it is at work, is just what the Platonic form would be, if it existed; and yet for all that, the mind is obviously and evidently alive.

A: And so consciousness – at least so far as it knows abstractions – raises the same problem as the Euthyphro raises about God.

B: That’s my claim.

A: But then what about someone like Hume, who denies outright that we actually know abstractions?

B: There will be some tensions there, but I think they give way to a deeper agreement. I think all I’m doing here is giving a solid argument for what Hume is gesturing at when he says that the best we can do with the mind is speak of it by analogy, though its true nature is unintelligible to us. Put in our language, this is because the true nature of mind is a concrete abstraction or an abstractus subsistens, which is a nature that is unintelligible to us that can only be understood by negation and analogy.

Hume against the abstract

Part One: that Abstract Ideas are Impossible

(In Three Arguments)


a.) Abstraction is separation

b.) By contraposition, the inseparable cannot be abstracted.

c.) But the impression or idea of line cannot be separated from its definite endpoints.

d.) But if anything could be abstracted, it would be an abstract quantity from a concrete one.

e.) So nothing can be abstracted.


a.) A merely faint and muddled idea that could be confused with its instances is not an abstract one

b.) But all ideas are merely faint impressions (from sec. 1-3)

c.) Therefore there are no abstract ideas.


a.) What is impossible to be understood by a clear and coherent idea in the mind is really impossible.

b.) Therefore, What is absurd for reality outside the mind is absurd for the reality within it.

c.) But abstract existence is impossible for reality outside the mind

d.) Therefore, abstract existence is impossible within the mind.

Part Two: What Supposedly Abstract Ideas Actually Are 

(Prologue with Four Explanations)


The putatively abstract idea is particular in its existence, but general in representation. By “general” we mean “we are accustomed to associate it with many”

So what is the basis of this “custom” that makes us associate some idea with many particulars? This is, for Hume, “the only difficulty that can remain on this subject”. His prologue to a proposed solution is fascinating:

The most proper method, in my opinion, of giving a satisfactory explication of this act of the mind, is by producing other instances, which are analogous to it, and other principles, which facilitate its operation. To explain the ultimate causes of our mental actions is impossible.

(Four Arguments)

a.) When things are hard to imagine, we invent symbol systems in order to make them more concrete. No one can visualize a chiliagon, but we can all understand a thousand-sided figure. The symbol is a remedy for the weakness of visualization.

b.) A single idea often sets off a cascade effect of evoking others, like a smell bringing back the idea of childhood, or a word that reminds us of a whole sentence, viz. “four-score” or “unalienable”.

c.) [I simply don’t get what description he is trying to give here, so I’ll just block-quote it]

Thirdly, I believe every one, who examines the situation of his mind in reasoning, will agree with me, that we do not annex distinct and compleat ideas to every term we make use of, and that in talking of government, church, negotiation, conquest, we seldom spread out in our minds all the simple ideas, of which these complex ones are compos’d. ’Tis however observable, that notwithstanding this imperfection we may avoid talking nonsense on these subjects, and may perceive any repugnance among the ideas, as well as if we had a full comprehension of them. Thus if instead of saying, that in war the weaker have always recourse to negotiation, we shou’d say, that they have always recourse to conquest, the custom, which we have acquir’d of attributing certain relations to ideas, still follows the words, and makes us immediately perceive the absurdity of that proposition; in the same manner as one particular idea may serve us in reasoning concerning other ideas, however different from it in several circumstances.

d.) Imagination is a prodigious genius at suggesting fit ideas for our use. It ranges freely over all concrete instances by a power, that we might never be able to explicate. But just because we can’t understand how this power works does not require us to say that it has recourse to something that has no concrete existence, any more than our failure to understand how a jet engine works requires us to say that it has parts with no concrete existence.

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