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The College of William and Mary

An Argument for God as First Cause
From Dun Scotus's Treatise on God as First Principle

I.
John Dun Scotus's Treatise on God as First Principle provides a remarkably complex
proof for the existence of God as the first cause of creation. Though his argument is
essentially sound, it is quite easy to get lost in its twists and turns. Despite this obscurity, I
intend to use the framework of his argument to defend the Scotus's proof for God as the first
principle or cause of creation. I will endeavor to use these structures to make Scotus's
argument more clear, and show just how impenetrable his proofs really are.

II.
Scotus frames his argument in this manner1: there are two kinds of causes, those which
are essentially ordered, and those which are accidentally ordered. An essentially ordered
cause is a series in which a given effect is intentionally and constantly caused, as opposed to
the incidental and linear causality of an accidentally ordered series of causes. It can be proved
that a cause which is first in an essentially ordered series is possible. From this point, Scotus
concludes that the first cause must actually exist, for a possible first cause can only exist of its
own virtue, as a being which is dependent on nothing, and so non-existence would imply a
form of dependency, and thus, a contradiction.
Yet Dun Scotus's argument is most coherently restated as a proof by contradiction. If
we grant that a first cause of an essentially ordered series does not exist, we must accept one
of two possibilities: a first cause is impossible, or it is possible but not actual. Scotus's
Treatise provides compelling evidence that the first cause is neither impossible, nor merely
1

John D. Scotus, “A Treatise On God as First Principle” in Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy (Prentice
Hall: Boston MA, 2011) 413-418.

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possible, i.e. possible but not actual. As such, since it cannot be found to be either, it must be
concluded that the First Cause does exist.

III.
Dun Scotus argued, “Something can be produced and therefore something can be
productive”2. Indeed, we observe that a carpenter uses his tools to produce a table, and so we
might conclude that he is the cause of the table. Yet the carpenter did not cause the wood
(from which the table is shaped) to be, and so he is just a member in a series that caused the
table's existence. But if it can be said that if the carpenter is a member in the series which
created the table, we must assume that there are causes which are more ultimate than the
carpenter. If there can be more ultimate causes, it is not impossible that there could be a cause
most ultimate.
We must also remember that there are two kinds of series of causes which can be
examined. The first, which Scotus calls the “causae per accidens”, or accidentally ordered
causes, is a series in which the successive members do not rely on their predecessors in the act
of causing. This kind of series is ontologically fruitless: if a first member can be found, it still
relies upon the form (usually matter) which enables its causality, and thus it still relies on
some other kind of cause. This other series of causes upon which the accidentally ordered
causes rely, is called the “causae per se”, or essentially ordered series. The essentially
ordered series is more like a series of gears: the motion of the last is necessarily dependent on
the motion of the first, which comes from some external force3. The carpenter's table's causae
2
3

Scotus, 413.
This external motion, which will be examined later, will be shown to be the first cause.

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per accidens is a mere history of matter; the table is shaped by a carpenter, cut from a tree,
grown from a seed, and so on. But if we want to know the ultimate cause of the table, we
must turn to its causae per se. No accidentally ordered effect can cause itself, nor can it come
from nothingness, therefor the first cause of creation must be essentially ordered, because it's
own cause is through itself.
The crucial argument the first cause can be stated as a proof by contradiction. There
are three possibilities concerning the first cause: (a) it is impossible, and thus does not exist,
(b) it is possible, yet does not exist, or (c) it is possible and exists. The two possibilities of the
non-existence of the first cause, (b) and (c), can be disproved, thus proving (a).
(a) can be disproved by demonstrating the possibility of the first cause: Anything that
is caused depends upon that which causes it for its existence, which we observe in per
accidens causes, such as the carpenter's table. Yet since the table only partially depends upon
the carpenter for its existence, it is possible that the table wholly depends upon something else
for its existence. If the table can depend upon a cause which is more primary than the
carpenter, than it is possible that there is some nature which is ultimately primary, which is
found by way of the per se cause. Therefore (a) cannot be true.
A first cause cannot be merely possible, as (b) suggests. For the sake of the argument,
we should consider something to be possible if it can be made actual. To assume that the first
cause can be possible, but not actual is to assume that there is some set of conditions under
which a first cause could be made real, and therefor invalidate the cause's primacy. This is
what Scotus meant by “Anything to whose nature it is repugnant to receive existence from

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something else exists of itself if it is able to exist at all.”4 The first cause is such a being whose
nature excludes contingency, and so it must be concluded that (b) is false.
(a) and (b) have been shown to be false – a first cause cannot be said to be impossible,
nor can it be possible but not actual. Therefor, the assertion that the first cause does not exist
is false, which validates (c). The first cause exists through and of itself, without contingency
upon any other entity, and primary over all causes.

IV.
An objection –
In one of the above paragraphs, it has been argued that a first cause is possible
according to a certain set of proofs and conditions. Yet the paragraph which follows asserts an
opposing perspective: something is possible if it can be made actual. If an argument can show
that the first cause is possible, is the first cause not also contingent upon the truths which
make a first cause possible?
In responsePossibility and mere possibility should be distinguished. Every material being is a
contingent being, and as such, can be considered a possible being which has been actualized
by some cause. We can reasonably assume that there are possible beings which are not
actualized, as per the nature of our contingency. Any such being which is possible, but not
actualized, should be considered merely possible. But these beings are ontologically defined
by a contingency. A first cause is quite different in that it can be shown to be possible, but that
4

Scotus, 416

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it can never be shown to be merely possible.
The concept of primacy is defined by a given set of traits, and yet primacy itself is not
contingent upon these traits; rather these traits are put forward as a means of description.
Likewise, it cannot be said that the traits of a first cause, which are used to test the possibility
of a first cause, are more eminent than the first cause itself, since language itself is also
contingent to the first cause. This peculiarity only arises in the nature of the first cause, since
it is primary to all creation and is caused through itself. Where our own nature is actualized by
way of our possibility, the first cause of creation is made possible by way of its actuality.

V.
The logic which is used to build Dun Scotus's argument for God as the first cause of
creation is both elegant and sound. Certain aspects and structures of his arguments have been
given a new order and clarified in this work, for the sake of a simpler understanding, yet what
has been expressed is essentially the core of Scotus's argument, which I have found plausible
and believable.
Earlier, the causae per se was likened to a series of gears which were codependent in
motion and necessarily linked. The first cause of such a series might portrayed as a crank,
through which motion is introduced into the series. Each gear relies completely upon the
crank for their motion, and no motion is possible without this crank, which is of a different
form from the gears it turns. This first cause, which we might call God, is the ultimate and
most perfect cause of the universe.

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Works Cited

Scotus, John D. A Treatise On God as First Principle. Trans. Allan B. Wolter. Medieval and
Renaissance Philosophy. Ed. Forrest E. Baird. 6th ed. Vol. II. Boston, MA: Prentice
Hall, 2011. Print.
Williams, Thomas. "John Duns Scotus." Stanford University. Stanford University, 31 May
2001. Web. 7 Apr. 2014.

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