There are two Medieval philosophers whose names mean, roughly, "John the Scot."  The first (and possibly more important) was actually Irish -- "Scotti" was the Roman name for the Irish, and it was Irish settlers in places like Dal Riada who eventually conquered what came to be known as Scotland.  The second (and certainly more famous), John Duns Scotus, is an oddity:  a major Aristotelian philosopher of the Franciscan school.  There's a major division in Christian theology between the Dominicans and the Franciscans, which concerns the nature of God.  Both agree that God's nature is singular, but they disagree over whether it is Will or Reason.  That is to say that the Franciscans believe that God is Love, and the Dominicans that God is Logos.  Aristotle more naturally fits the Dominican approach; but Duns Scotus was an exception.  He wrote some interesting things about love from an Aristotelian perspective.

One of the things that Duns Scotus treats is the problem of individuation.  Aristotelian sciences are all based around genera:  we might say that you would have a science of birds, similar to how we divide groups of animals into a genus, and then subdivide into species, and further subdivide species into individuals.  Duns Scotus says that this is backwards:  we ought to start with the individual as such, because the individual exists as an individual thing, not as a subdivision of a species or a genus.  When we group individuals into species or genera, we are engaging in an act of intellection:  we are making things by building these groupings.  The things themselves are just individual things.

In this he follows Aristotle's instinct when Aristotle speaks not of genera but of forms.  Plato held that the form was primary, and we who have the form of Man participate in a higher form; Aristotle held that the form is only actualized in the individual men.  Duns Scotus is following that line of thought into places Aristotle didn't care to take it.

The technical way of saying this for Duns Scotus is that 'individuation cannot come from privation.'  That is to say, you can't get an individual by starting with a group, and dividing out the one you want.

I've decided he's wrong about that.  You can.  We can get "this stone" from "stone" by breaking off a piece. It makes sense to individuate out of a genera.  We can get "this plant" out of a plant by dividing it -- at least for many species of plants and, indeed, fungi.  You can cut off pieces, dip them in rooting compound, and get a new individual plant.  Even among animals, there are some you can subdivide and get new individuals:  worms of some kinds, for example.

Yet he isn't wrong about us.  He isn't wrong about dogs or horses.  There's something different going on at our level of organization that makes his general ruling, while correct for us, a fallacy of composition:  an assumption that what holds at one level of organization holds for all levels of organization.

So when he speaks of love, and says that love points first and most to a particular individual, he is right:  but he is right about how we love another of our kind, not about love in general.

What does that mean for how God loves -- or, if we were to try to fight this from a Platonic metaphysics, what consequences follow from this break in the order?  There is a particular honor for those things that are individuated primarily.  That is to say, there's something special about being a man, or a dog, or a horse:  things of this kind.

Now, what follows from that I don't know yet.  But it is different, and that is important.


Texan99 said...

Is the peak of Mt. Everest the culmination of the north face, or the south face? That's how I feel about deciding whether God is Will or Reason.

Grim said...

That's a reasonable position if you aren't committed to the idea that God is simple. However, all of these thinkers were so committed: I believe I'm right to say that the Catholic Church is still committed to the doctrine, for very good philosophical reasons. You can read Aquinas' short article from the Summa here, but the real treatment comes in Avicenna, where it fills several dozen pages of tightly-argued philosophy. It's a remarkable doctrine that combines Aristotle with neoplatonic thought, in a way that is so compelling that both the Jews of the day and the Catholic Church adopted what was originally an Islamic argument about the nature of God. The Catholic Church is still committed to it, I believe; but Protestant churches prefer a simpler intellectual approach to God (which, ironically, ends up making God much more complicated).

Tom said...

Beginner question: Why is holding that God is Will the same as God is Love?

Grim said...

I think "God is Love" is the position with priority for the Christian thinkers; and love, since it is emotional rather than rational, pertains to the Will rather than to the Reason. So, if you believe that God is Love, then you believe that God is Will.

However, in the Islamic philosophy, God is Will in the more general sense of Will. Whereas there remains a dispute even to this day in Christian thought, the Will concept won in Islamic philosophy. Thus, if you flip a light switch and the light comes on, it is not because God is Reason and thus has created an ordered universe with rules you can understand. It is because God is Will, and he continues to will each time that the light might come on.

Modern Americans tend to dismiss this position as fundamentally irrational, but that's too quick. The truth is that Reason-based metaphysics (and not merely religious ones, but ones that are based on the idea of physical laws) do a great job of explaining why there is order in the universe, and why physics works in more or less reliable ways.

They don't do as good a job of explaining entropy, which is perhaps the most basic fact of the universe. It's interesting that chaos functions in a lawful way -- the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for example -- but nevertheless, increasing entropy appears to be the fact of every transaction in the universe. If we inhabit a universe that is essentially ordered, that should not be true.

As an aside, this is one reason I prefer a neoplatonic metaphysics; but that is another discussion. For now, it's just important to note that God is Will (or Love) is not an unreasonable position. It may make better sense of the centrality of chaos to the universe as we observe it.

E Hines said...

Is the chip of stone really an individual, or still part of the original whole, just separated? Is the new plant really not part of the original--it contains almost entirely the same DNA of the original.

And yet, to argue the other direction, are we not all individuals--including that chip of stone, or the divided plant--and we're just stereotyping (in a scientifically organized stereotype) similar individuals into groups, and groups into metagroups, and....

The Universe--God's Universe--is, as far as we can tell, exceedingly complex, but it's built up from a purely binary set of quanta--which may not exist in a particular form at all until observed by a sentience (vis. Schroedinger's cat).

God is simple (I baldly assert) and individual--but all of his complexities are just the result of how we perceive Him, and from which direction--both in this world, and as our minds evolve.

To suggest that some entities are subsets of a group while others at our level of organization are individuals then stereotyped seems to me to suggest one of two things: there comes a point in the level of complexity that breaks the continuum of increasing complexity and uniqueness occurs, or there was a deliberate decision to make some entities unique, individual, and others as subsets of a larger whole.

But then what of the Universe, which is more complex than an individual human--or the species--and yet, if our cosmology has a chance of being an accurate description, is neither unique nor individual. Yet the Universe is, as far as we can tell, the pinnacle of the physical world.

Eric Hines

E Hines said...

...increasing entropy appears to be the fact of every transaction in the universe. If we inhabit a universe that is essentially ordered, that should not be true.

I don't agree. In an expanding universe, it makes perfect sense that entropy should, more or less, steadily increase. There's a finite amount of stuff--in physical or energy form; the two are interchangeable--and it must fill an increasing volume, so things must run down. This also parallels (which is not the same as similar to) the apparent unidirectionality of time. But if the universe is cyclical--that is, there's a path of contraction back to the singularity, then in that phase, entropy must decrease, and order is preserved.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

There is some evidence that entropy may be decreasing across cycles of creation and contraction. However, this also fits a model more like Plato's Timaeus -- where chaos is a basic feature of creation, which the creator being is trying to bring into order -- or like Avicenna's, in which the creator isn't really aware of the creation and it is lesser beings who are trying to order it (God is simple, and for Avicenna, the simple thing that he is follow's Aristotle's model for the Unmoved Mover, that is, thought thinking about itself. Thus, God does not notice that this brings about creation, and the 'bringing to order' of matter is being done by the created intellects).

Texan99 said...

I don't have the kind of mind, I guess, that can entertain a controversy over whether God is "simple." A lot of theological controversies strike me as ways of saying, "Well, obviously God is either red or green. If He's red, then green is evil, and we'd better cut down all the trees, and burn the heretics who think trees are OK. But if he's green, then poppies are right out. Kill everyone who puts poppies on the altar." Most of the dichotomies posited for His nature seem either blindingly irrelevant, or in no way mutually exclusive.

God has told us as much about what He's like as He seems to think we need to know in order to do our duty and live our lives. Do I really need to know whether he's Three or One (or both)? Do I need to know, if He ever felt confronted with the need to choose between Love and Reason, or Faith and Works, or Free Will and Predestination, or Mercy and Justice, which one He'd opt for? If the Resurrection and the Redemption are any guide, He's liable to come up with a way of making us see something new about both at the same time.

E Hines said...

The existence of the ripples--which at one point the article posits being regions of dark matter--from prior cycles strikes me as order left over from prior cycles: entropy actually decreasing across cycles.

But that would seem to be as much a violation as net increasing entropy in the system.

As an aside, Ms Davidson seems confused about the article on which she's reporting, though, variously labeling the ripples as radiation, gravitational waves, and dark matter.

Chasing Gurzadyan and Penrose's article, what they are actually positing seems to be that gravitational waves from massive black hole collisions at the end of the previous cycle get translated by "our" Big Bang into expanding spherical wave fronts of dark matter (centered on the apparent loci of those collisions), whose presence is (if the rings are, in fact, extant) detected by the symptom of dark matter effects on the background radiation in its region.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Not to dismiss the musings about the origin of the universe -- which are my fault, but were by the way of answering Tom's question -- but, to return to the matter of individuation:

It might be the case that you could inviduate humans in a similar way to worms, now that I think about it a bit more. You could, for example, take a DNA sample from an early fetus and clone it. The two beings would be individuals, with a genetic history that would begin to differentiate at once and would continue to do so. Once they were adults, you would find substantial similarities -- but also adequate difference to constitute individuation.

I think that complicates the picture, but not in a way that saves Scotus' position. By privation -- by taking away a single cell from you and cloning it -- I am individuating.

E Hines said...

The two [cloned] beings would be individuals, with a genetic history that would begin to differentiate at once and would continue to do so.

But applies to all living organisms, not just those of us at our level of organization. Only the chip off the rock would not develop a differing genetic history. On the other hand, that inanimate object would immediately begin to develop its own weathering--and potentially location--history. I can't think of any reason why this wouldn't serve to individuate the rock chip.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

... love, since it is emotional rather than rational, pertains to the Will rather than to the Reason.

Thanks for the explanation. Alas, I think I don't know enough about this topic to even ask the question properly. I'll go read up on Will vs. Reason.

I hesitate to go on, but I feel foolhardy today, so why not?

Since Duns Scotus is talking about individuals coming from groups and not individuals coming from individuals, is the stone or cloning argument a good one? That is, anyone can see one human coming out of another at birth, so it would seem strange to say one individual cannot come from another.

Instead, was he possibly dealing with something like categories and instances? You can derive the category of Man from individual men, but, without the existence of individual men, the category is meaningless? Or, to put it another way, the category comes from the members, not the reverse.

Or am I still batting on a football field?

Grim said...


I think you're on the right track to getting at what Duns Scotus thinks is going on, if I understand your question correctly. The individual exists ("is actual"); the group, insofar as it exists at all, exists as an act of intellection. It isn't real in the same way.

Now, we would usually want to dispute that: and, in fact, we seem to have pretty good grounds for disputing it. The success of actuaries in making insurance agencies a profitable business suggests that membership in genera offers at least a high predictive value: we know that young men need to be charged higher rates for car insurance than fully adult women, for example. We know that smokers who also drink die of cancer at far higher rates than others who do not.

More than this, we can say something important about what it means to be human. That's a genera of a sort (an odd one, tracking Scotus, since in fact we never meet a "human being," but rather a man or a woman. The individual exists; the genera does not actually exist in the same way).

I'm going to stop here, to make sure you're tracking. What Scotus means when he says that you can't 'individuate by privation' is that you can't cut things out of the genera, because it's the things and not the genera that actually exist. We've got reasons to fight that point, but in one sense it's a pretty intuitive point. Right?

Grim said...


On the other hand, that inanimate object would immediately begin to develop its own weathering--and potentially location--history. I can't think of any reason why this wouldn't serve to individuate the rock chip.

Nor can I. My point here is that we've individuated it by privation: we've cut it out of a whole, and thus created an individual where there wasn't one before. The rock isn't actually a very good example, for two reasons: it doesn't really change much by being cut off (i.e., it is otherwise the same except for the one face that has been shattered); and it isn't a substance in the Aristotelian sense (because substances reproduce themselves as a basic function, which stones don't really do).

However, the fact that we can do it with plants or worms or -- given cloning -- human beings suggests that there's something else going on. We can individuate by privation. That's interesting.

Tom said...

What Scotus means when he says that you can't 'individuate by privation' is that you can't cut things out of the genera, because it's the things and not the genera that actually exist.

That does seem pretty intuitive. But, if that's Scotus's point, then how does cloning or cutting a piece off a stone provide a counterexample? If the genera is an abstraction, then cutting a piece off a stone is not the same as pulling a stone out of the abstract genera Stone.

E Hines said...

We can individuate by privation.

I'm not convinced we need cloning in order to individuate by privation. It seems to me that nearly any reproductive process achieves that. The recombination of the DNA of the parents produces a unique other individual, even though the DNA leaves that other (nearly always) in the same group as the parents.

Without knowing the biological details as well as I ought, it seems to me that even where single celled organisms (amoebae?) "reproduce" by fissioning, I'm not sure individuation hasn't occurred in this sense (which may be a stretch too far): fissioning doesn't alter the DNA; if there is a change, it's through the error of mutation. In a very real sense, such organisms are immortal and today's "offspring" are the same organism as their grandparents a million years removed; their genetic structure, absent error, is the same today as it was then. The fissioned offspring are your rock chip. The only difference is that biology did the chipping instead of a rock fall.

Eric Hines

Grim said...


The dispute with two sets of people: the first is those who believe that our nature (say, human nature) is a real thing, independent of how we think about it. This is plausible: a thing like humanity survives across generations, and unites all of us. It appears to have a nature that we can know something about. Thus, as individuals, we are not really just individuals: the genera seems to be at least partially real in itself, independent of our minds. So, he's arguing against those who take genera for only mental concepts (as Ockham will do, later).

Scotus is also arguing against those who think that the genera is the main thing that is real in itself. Avicenna believed that what was essential about us is that generic nature that makes human beings different from (say) birds. The things that make us individuals are accidents: I happen to inhabit a body made out of this matter and not that matter, I happen to have brown hair and not blonde, and so forth. Here this unifying human nature (the term in Aristotle is "substance" -- humanity and other things that reproduce are substances) has a primary independent reality. The material accidents cut us out of it as individuals.

This is to say that the unifying nature may be even more illusory than it seems to be to Scotus: if I take a cell from my stomach and clone it, the new being will be entirely individual from me in the primary sense that he will not share my consciousness. The apparent unity -- exactly the same parents, hair color, DNA structure, etc -- doesn't hold. Even if you bring the unifying nature all the way down to "that which is this man, here," I can create a new individual outside of that genera by privation. He will have his own individuality because he will be conscious of it: he will know he is himself, and not me.

Grim said...


In a very real sense, such organisms are immortal and today's "offspring" are the same organism as their grandparents a million years removed; their genetic structure, absent error, is the same today as it was then.

Yes, in a real sense. The dispute is over just how real!

douglas said...

You know, in the end, I find myself agreeing with Tex in a way- I do think God is simple, but I also think God is complex. The more we learn of the nature of our universe, we find that there is order in disorder, that what appears simple is complex, and that complexity may be quite simple at it's root. The dichotomy between simple and complex may be a false one.

This is in parallel with my view that God being a holy Trinity is not odd at all, any more than my being a son, a father, and a husband is. It's complex and simple at once. Most things are, maybe all things are, and we're just playing semantics with scale and point of view.