Coda on Scotus and Modality
A crucial angle of approach for understanding the change of perspective brought about by Duns concerns the new status of possibility. For Aristotle and Aquinas, everything begins from the actual, but Scotus, like Plato, hypothesizes possibilities as essences preceding actual existence and standing even quite apart from it. An archetypal status can be attributed to things as ideas in the mind of God before their creation. Duns’s predecessor Henry of Ghent considers such possibility as a necessary presupposition for everything that is actual. The distinction between essence as pure idea and existence as something more, as adding real existence to the mere idea, was borrowed from Avicenna. Along with it came the contemplation of a realm of possibilities as merely virtual entities. A whole order of the possible insinuates itself into the real as a prior condition of the actual. This gives rise to a world of contingency, of non-necessary possibilities. It is modeled on God’s eternal knowledge of his creatures before the Creation. However, as apprehended by humans, this realm is the product of reflection. It is defined and controlled by our minds. Since it has no actual existence, such a virtual world exists only as, and by virtue of, projection of possibilities by the mind through reflection.
Reflection invents a non-actual world circumscribed by its own grid of determinate possibilities. This invasion and incipient colonization of the non-actual has far-reaching and fateful consequences. It results eventually in the erasure and forgetting of the indeterminate and unknowable, since it considers even what is not actual as nevertheless defined and known as a possibility. All that is not or is actually nothing is taken to exist already as divided up into determinate possibilities of existing.
For Aristotle, only actuality, not potentiality, is susceptible of being known. Scotus, building on his predecessors, invents a knowledge of determinate possibilities that effectively sweeps away the vast unchartable realm of indeterminate potential by focusing attention on determinate possibilities that can be reflectively defined and thenceforth calculated. This will enable science eventually to construct a world of calculable contingencies and to forget the infinite, unknown depth of being preexisting all determinations. The infinite, uncircumscribable potentiality of the
Coda on Scotus and Modality 181 actual world is thereby reduced to being contained by a mental schema and template.
A chemistry formula may serve here as an illustration. Certain defined substances in contact with a defined catalyst produce a standard, describable chemical reaction. We think of these substances as precisely identified and specified mathematically by their molecular composition (H,O, CO,, etc.), but we ignore and abstract from the depth of their unique being in any actual instance. We consider them only insofar as they fit into our formulas. We invent a conceptually constructed world that conforms to our definitions and follows laws focused to reflect only the elements that are pre-selected by our own formulations. This is how a world of formal entities is constructed by science, while the deeper roots of being in the unfathomably real are occulted. Why matter exists at all remains an unsoundable mystery, but it is one that no longer matters!