Two Traditions on the Necessity of the Eternal

An inquiry into the history of the infinite power argument demonstrates how late Greek scholasticism provided medieval philosophy with not one, but two models of Plenitude to work from. The Platonic notion of a maximal creation was sometimes complemented by, but sometimes pitted against a naturalistic modal model that included a temporalized version of Plenitude among its theoretical preconceptions.

The evolving interpretation of the infinite power argument runs on two curiously parallel lines. Both the Neoplatonist and the Aristotelian traditions employ the notion of infinite power as well as the idea of all possibilities being realized in the one and only universe. But whereas Aristotelian theory treats infinite power solely within the framework of an everlasting physical world, the Neoplatonist view sees it primarily in terms of the Demiurge's timeless reality. The difference is mirrored in the way Plenitude and infinite power are projected on the level of corporeal reality. For those working from Aristotelian natural theory, both infinite and finite powers are viewed as natural capacities having definite extensions in natural subjects. This leads Philoponus to stark creationism and Averroes into a descending necessitarian spiral. In the Neoplatonist worldview, by contrast, infinite divine power is conceived of as reaching though all levels of existence simultaneously, with the temporal dimension at times all but disregarded. This allows the inclusion of a certain amount of contingency into the eternal, although it could be argued that this conception is still insufficient for an accurate philosophical depiction of the Biblical Creator God.

This is because both approaches in fact mirror classical Greek attitudes to natural theology. Neoplatonist theology presents its conclusions as being just as binding logically for the form of the world as does Aristotelian naturalism. The Aristotelians in our survey ponder the natural powers of natural entities and take the conclusions they reach to be on a par with the dictates of natural laws; the Neoplatonists, beginning their inquiry from the nature of God, present their conclusions as theological prescriptions. Again, the difference results in different conceptions regarding the way Plenitude works: but it is noteworthy that both conceptions are in principle amenable with both eternalism and creationism, and that both share a distinct necessitarian streak. The eternity of the world is testimony to its necessity on both accounts, even if in Aristotelian natural philosophy this indicates the presence and immovability of omnitemporal natural potencies, whereas in Neoplatonism it primarily testifies to the timeless presence of a divine chain of being.

Only from between the two could something wholly different begin to emerge, as hinted at for the first time in mainstream Aristotelianism by Avicenna's metaphysics of contingency and realized fully in its later inspired reworking by John Duns Scotus.

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