Harrison Jennings on Act and Potency (pt. 1)

Harrison Jennings of the Disputed Questions blog recently wrote a post replying to my first YouTube video and my recent blog post critiquing Feser’s argument from motion and the Aristotelian act-potency metaphysic. This is one of my favorite replies I’ve received to date, so I’m excited to engage with Harrison.

Harrison correctly notes that I argue a potential is actual and so may well have actualizing capabilities. He says that, if I were right, this would undermine Feser’s premise “a potential cannot be actualized by a potential but only by something already actual.” But technically, this exact premise doesn’t appear in Feser’s argument from motion in Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Feser’s premise is as follows: “No potential can be actualized unless something already actual actualizes it (the principle of causality)” (p. 35). This is why in my video I say, “I wouldn’t object to this unless I had read the rest of the book where, in other parts of this chapter, he says that a potential is not something actual, and so it can’t serve as an actualizer of potential.” (I’m actually not sure now if he does say this in other parts of the Five Proofs chapter on the argument from motion, but if not he says it in Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, part of which I read before making the video.) Feser’s premise doesn’t explicitly deny that potentials can be actualized by potentials. But my suspicion is that readers often assume the premise rules out that possibility, because by the time they read that part of the book they’ve been taught to draw a dichotomy between actuality and potentiality, such that a potential can’t already be actual. I also suspect that Feser made the same assumption, and that he wanted his readers to do the same.

If Feser isn’t using this premise to rule out the possibility that potentials actualize potentials, then I’m willing to entirely grant the premise (although I have my doubts about principles of causality/sufficient reason). In that case I agree with Harrison that my point that potentials are actual doesn’t count against the main idea behind this premise. But it still challenges other premises. Before I get to that, though, I need to address a related issue. This will take a while, but I promise I’ll return to Feser’s argument when the time is right.

Can a potential have a potential for existence? Harrison thinks that’s impossible.

harrison 1

I think he believes this because he thinks potentials are neither things nor actual; only what is a thing or what is actual can “have” anything. Potentials are rather principles by which things can be a certain way. But I don’t know that being a principle by which a thing T can be a certain way is incompatible with being a thing. It’s arguably incompatible with being T, since T cannot account for the way T itself is, but the principle could still be a thing other than T. Furthermore, it sounds natural to rephrase “principle by which” as “thing in virtue of which.” In this vein, Thomists have previously explained to me that “principle” means cause. I know of no cause that isn’t also a concrete thing. Of course, the Thomistic God would be one such cause, because he isn’t a thing. But I don’t know that such a God exists, and even if I did, I would still know that many non-divine causes are things. Given that all causes are principles, this means many principles are things.

But suppose it’s true that potentials aren’t things, and that they consequently can’t have other potentials. Then potentials may still be actual. On a Thomistic understanding of actuality, that’s to say there may be a principle by which potentials are determined to a specific perfection.

As I understand it, to be determined to a specific perfection is just to have a specific attribute; for Thomists maintain that all attributes are perfections, or good-making attributes, seeing as being and goodness are convertible (i.e., really the same, even though the ideas aren’t the same). To be bad or neutral in some way is merely to lack an attribute; all presences are instances of goodness.

And there’s no doubt that potentials have attributes as much as things have attributes. Consider that a dog’s potential for existence and a cat’s potential for existence share the attribute of being for, or “directed toward,” existence. Or that a cup of coffee’s potential for coldness and a cup of tea’s potential for coldness share the attribute of being for coldness. Or that a dog’s potential for existence and a cup of coffee’s potential for coldness share the attribute of being for something. One could resist this line of thought by holding that, instead of the same attribute being instantiated by multiple potentials, it’s merely that the same thing is true of multiple potentials. To infer from this that potentials share attributes is to reify the predicates that apply to potentials (i.e., to unwarrantedly infer something about the world from grammatical or semantic features of true sentences about potentials); how can such considerations about language rule out the metaphysical position known as “nominalism,” which asserts that attributes don’t exist? But I don’t believe I’m any more guilty of reification in this case than Thomists are when they say that God has the attribute of being omnipotent. They have no reason to believe God has this attribute beyond their (potentially well-supported) belief that God is omnipotent.

And if a potential can have an attribute without being a thing, it’s no longer clear why a potential can’t have a potential without being a thing. If it’s simply having of any kind that a potential is supposedly incapable of (as Harrison implies when he says, “A potency . . . can’t ‘have’ anything”), potentials’ having attributes shows this to be false. But I suppose, when pressed, Harrison would allow that potentials are capable of some kinds of having. For example, he explicitly argues that potentials are real, from which we may infer that potentials have reality. So, just what kinds of having is he denying of potentials?

One thought is that he’s denying that potentials can have, or possess, beings (not to be confused with having being). Reality, one might believe, isn’t a being so much as an attribute or state of beings. So potentials can still have reality. The problem with this reading of Harrison’s Tweet is that he explicitly denies that potentials are beings (or things). So if potentials are only incapable of having beings, potentials should be able to have potentials anyway. But if reality’s not being a being doesn’t make having reality relevantly different from having a potential, what does?

Perhaps Harrison will question my inference from potentials’ being real to their having reality. After all, he might allow that potentials are potential (not to be confused with the statement “potentials are potentials“) even though they don’t have potentialities. Likewise, he might allow that potentials are real even though they don’t have reality. But it seems to me that there simply is no difference between being real and having reality; necessarily, if x is real, then x has reality. Being potential and having a potentiality, on the other hand, are not the same thing. If a potential is potential in any sense, it’s just in the sense that it’s not actualized. A potential may conceivably be unactualized and yet not have any potentiality. That is, there may be no principle by which the potential is undetermined but determinable in some respect.

Note further that Thomists already believe in an actual existence that isn’t a thing: Existence Itself, God, the purely actual actualizer! According to Aquinas, God is not a thing, because if he were he would be one thing among others (falling under the same category) and thus would have parts. But then his existence would be dependent. Moreover, being purely actual, God has more actuality than any thing. And if God can be actual without being a thing, why can’t a potential?

Finally we’re ready to apply these considerations to Feser’s argument! I wish to object to the following two premises, taken from p. 35 of Feser’s Five Proofs:

9. A’s own existence at the moment it actualizes S itself presupposes either (a) the concurrent actualization of its own potential for existence or (b) A’s being purely actual.

10. If A’s existence at the moment it actualizes S presupposes the concurrent actualization of its own potential for existence, then there exists a regress of concurrent actualizers that is either infinite or terminates in a purely actual actualizer.

As the context makes clear, A is what actualizes the existence of an arbitrarily selected changing substance S. Suppose that, per the possibility I’ve raised, every hierarchical series of existence-actualizers (i.e., things that actualize potentials for existence) bottoms out with potentials. That is, the first, in a logical rather than temporal sense, or most ontologically fundamental members of the series are potentials, although I am leaving open whether the series has any very first members (i.e., any one member that is not preceded by another). Then how do these premises hold up?

On the supposition that A is a potential:

Disjunct (b) of 9 comes out false. A potential can’t be purely actual, because pure actuality can’t be even partly potential. To be identical to a potential is to be partly potential, in the sense that it entails having a potential as an improper part (which is just another way of saying it entails being one-and-the-same thing as a potential). Now, to be fair, I haven’t heard Thomists directly state that pure actuality can’t be partly potential in this sense. I just inferred from the word “pure,” as well as the Thomistic thesis that pure actuality is not a mixture of act and potential, that this was part of the Thomistic concept. And of course, since I’m positing that A is a potential with an act of existing, act and potential do seem to be somehow mixed together in A. The only difference between A and a typical mixture of act and potential is that A is the potential; A doesn’t have any of the potential, unless a potential can either have itself or have another potential.

This brings me to disjunct (a) of 9. If (a) is to be true, as is both necessary (given (b)’s falsity) and sufficient for the whole premise to be true, A must have a potential for existence. I’ve given reasons above to think that a potential might well have a potential for existence. If I’m right about that, I concede that (a) is plausible. For A exists, and hence it’s natural to suppose that any potential for existence A has is actualized.

But there are still two ways to resist (a). One is to argue that A may exist as a result of its potential for existence even though A’s potential for existence had no actualizer – that is, no cause of its actualization.** This would mean defending skepticism about principles of causality or sufficient reason, which I don’t have the space to do here.

The second way is to argue that something with a potential for existence might exist without having its potential for existence actualized. Recall that Thomists believe pure act exists even though it has no potential whatsoever. So, they hold that it’s possible for there to be existence without the actualization of any potential. But then why can’t A, though it has a potential for existence, be another case of existence without the actualization of potential? Why does the mere fact that A has a potential for existence mean that A “used” said potential in order to gain its existence? If pure act can exist without possessing, much less using, a potential to do so, perhaps potentials, which aren’t purely actual, can exist without using the potentials they possess to do so.

Harrison’s account, or definition, of essence sheds light on this issue:

Every individaul substance has its own act of existing which gives being to the whole. An act of existing actualizes an essence, which considered in itself would just be the potential to exist in a certain way (e.g., the essence of a dog, considered in itself, is the potential to exist as a dog). But because of the finite nature of creatures, an act of existing never actualizes the full range of potentials inherent within a given essence.

Given the above, we may reason as follows: The potential to exist as A just is the essence of A. But the potential to exist as A just is A’s potential for existence. Therefore, A’s potential for existence just is the essence of A. This means A can only exist without its potential for existence being actualized if A can exist without its essence being actualized. But that can’t be. If A has a given essence, then it’s impossible for A to exist without having the attributes entailed by its essence. But that’s just another way of saying A can’t exist without its essence being actualized.

The only hope of salvaging this criticism of (a) is to frame it as a trilemma instead. The first horn of the trilemma is that A can exist without having its potential for existence actualized. The second is that pure act has no essence, since the essence of pure act would be the potential to exist as pure act. But pure actuality entails the absence of potential. Thomists will find this horn untenable; they all agree that God has, indeed is, an essence, namely existence. The third horn is that pure act has an essence, but Harrison’s above account of essence applies only to what isn’t purely actual. Sometimes, as in the case of pure act, an essence isn’t a potential for existence. This horn may be the most appealing. Still, it has the undesirable consequence that there’s no apparent reason to think the above account of essence is true of the essences of potentials.*** Why can’t potentials have essences that aren’t potentials for existence, if pure act can? The answer to this question can’t be as simple as, “All essences are potentials for existence, and vice versa.” Then it would be incorrect to say that pure act has, or is, an essence. A better answer would be, “All essences in the univocal sense are potentials for existence, and vice versa. Pure act’s essence is analogical, so it needn’t involve any potential.” But that doesn’t tell us why we should think the univocal sense of “essence” isn’t broad enough to apply to the essences of both potentiality and pure actuality. To me it seems that “essence,” at least in ordinary language, is such a broad concept that it likely encompasses both the kind of essence Thomists attribute to God and the kind of essence Harrison describes. At any rate, essence in the ordinary sense doesn’t seem to require any potential for existence; there’s no reason to think the ordinary sense differs that much from the analogical sense.

There’s a concern that I’ve unwittingly undermined the meaningfulness of my previous sentence, because Harrison’s account of the relation between essence and potential provides the only definition of “potential for existence.” But this is not so, for “x’s potential for existence” can be defined as the principle by which x possibly exists, or is able to exist. Now you may be wondering how a thing can have an essence if there’s no principle by which it can exist. Well, take the case of God. Due to the kind of reasoning employed in Alvin Plantinga’s modal ontological argument, God’s existence is generally regarded as either metaphysically necessary or metaphysically impossible. The theist holds that God is necessary, the atheist that God is impossible. But interestingly, theist and atheist alike maintain that certain attributes lie in, or flow from, the essence of God. This is more or less just to maintain that there is a determinate concept that something must satisfy to be God, regardless of whether something in the actual world can or does fall under that concept. As such, if the atheist is being consistent in holding there’s an essence of an impossible God, there’s at least an epistemic possibility of there being an essence of something without a principle making that thing possible.

One final worry: A exists, so it must be that A has a potential for existence in the sense that A has a principle by which it can exist. Moreover, A’s potential for existence can’t go unactualized, because all it takes for the principle by which A possibly exists to be actualized is for A to exist.

I’ll admit that it may be harder to imagine that A might exist without having an actualized possibility of existing than it is to imagine that, say, God might exist without having an actualized potential for existence. But the upshot of this line of reasoning, for the Thomist, is that God has a potential for existence, since surely God possibly exists. That is, unless God possibly exists without there being some principle by which God can exist. If a principle by which God can exist just is a cause by which God can exist, it’s likely that the Thomist will deny that God has such a principle. Nothing apart from God accounts for the possibility of his existing, because God is purely actual, causally uninfluenced by other things, and completely self-existent. And God cannot have a principle as a part, because he is utterly simple. But this response to the above upshot only appears to be available if one regards a principle as a cause or a part.

Since we’re still supposing that A is a potential, the consequent of 10 comes out true as long as the regress of existence-actualizers bottoms out with potentials whose own potentials for existence must have actualizers. And that is likely, given that the antecedent is true; if A must have an actualizer of its potential for existence, why are the most fundamental potentials in the regress a different story? There seems to be no difference among the various kinds of potentials that affects whether those potentials require actualizers. So my only worry about 10 is that A, and by extension whichever potential(s) the regress bottoms out with, actually can exist without having a potential for existence that’s actualized. I’ve already discussed that worry at length.

** One could object that the actualization’s being uncaused is consistent with (a), since strictly speaking (a) only states that there is a concurrent actualization. Fair enough. But you have to admit that “actualization” is ambiguous between the action of actualizing and the state/process of being actualized. The former reading, but not the latter, entails that there is an actualizer, or thing that causally acts so as to realize A’s potential. Moreover, if we go with the latter reading, we can’t make the step from premise 9 to premise 10.

*** It may seem odd that I call this consequence undesirable, since Thomists like Harrison already deny that potentials can have other potentials, which presumably means they deny that potentials can have essences. The problem is, if potentials have potentials for existence that aren’t identical to their essences, my original (pre-trilemmafication) version of this criticism still goes through. So, if I successfully argued that potentials can have other potentials, the Thomist who grabs this horn should worry that A can exist without its potential for existence being actualized, and thus that (a) may be false.

On the supposition that A is not a potential:

We’re still supposing that there’s a series of existence-actualizers that bottoms out with potentials, even if A isn’t one of those. So, either each of those potentials needs to have its own existence actualized or not…

  • Given the former, there’s a beginningless regress of potentials having their existence actualized by other potentials. I’m okay with that. But once I accept that the series is beginningless, it’s unnecessary for me to make the controversial proposal that the series bottoms out with potentials in particular, rather than, say, a series of ever-smaller subatomic particles. The beginninglessness already rules out that the series begins with a purely actual actualizer.
  • Given the latter (which is the kind of possibility I defended while supposing A to be potential), the regress needn’t go on forever or terminate with a purely actual actualizer, contra 10. It can terminate with a potential instead.

Changing gears…

Setting aside the argument from motion, Harrison formally reconstructs my argument for the actuality of potentials as follows:

  1. For a potential to do the work the Thomist wants it to, it must be real
  2. But whatever is real, must be actual
  3. Therefore, a potential must be actual

I do think this argument is sound (once we add the premise that every potential does the work the Thomist wants it to), but that’s primarily because I take reality and actuality to be one and the same. Since Harrison disagrees and I doubt I’m able to convince him otherwise, I need to find a way to defend 2 even on the assumption that reality and actuality are distinct.

Here’s one way. For Harrison things are real if and only if they are (a) actual or (b) possessed by something actual. Potentials are real via (b) instead of (a). But think about what it means for a potential to be possessed by an actual thing. Harrison says that potentials are principles by which actual things can be determined to specific attributes. In other words, they ground the actual things’ being able to exemplify these attributes. If potentials are this closely related to their bearers, it’s highly intuitive that potentials inhabit the same possible world that their bearers inhabit. So either potentials are in the actual world, or their actually existent bearers aren’t in the actual world. It seems inconsistent to maintain that the bearers, despite being actual, aren’t in the actual world. Surely they’re in some world, and they wouldn’t be actual unless that world were the actual one. But if the potentials are in the actual world, they can’t fail to be actual. For to be actual just is to exist in the actual world.

Maybe Harrison will reply that the notion of actuality I’m using diverges from what he and other Thomists mean by “being actual” or “having act(uality).” For them, a thing is actual if and only if there’s a principle by which that thing is determined to a particular attribute. And a potential is not a thing with a principle determining it to a particular attribute.

But I’ve explained above why I think both that a potential may well be a thing and that a potential has particular attributes. Supposing that a potential is a thing with attributes, the Thomist who accepts a sufficiently strong principle of sufficient reason should concede that something explains the potential’s having those attributes. As far as I can tell, that just is what it is for the potential to have a principle determining it to a particular attribute.

I could also reformulate Harrison’s presentation of my argument, removing the premise that potentials that are real must be actual. I see this as closer to what I originally intended, too:

  1. If a potential does the work the Thomist wants it to, then the potential is actual.
  2. Potentials do the work the Thomist wants them to.
  3. Therefore, potentials are actual.

I obviously don’t need to convince the Thomist of 2, but there are a few ways I can support 1. One is the simple intuition that whatever exists is actual, conjoined with the fact that doing work presupposes existing. I find this intuition very powerful in itself, but I can also make an argument for this generalization.

P. For all x, if x exists, then x actually exists. (premise)

Q. For all y, if y actually exists, then y is actual. (premise)

R. So, for all z, if z exists, then z is actual. (from P & Q)

I take it that P and Q don’t require defense if we read “actual(ly)” in the colloquial, non-Thomistic sense. But what if we give these premises a Thomistic reading? Then P asserts that whatever exists has a principle by which it’s determined to some perfection, and Q asserts that any existent that has a principle by which it’s determined to some perfection does indeed have a principle by which it’s determined to some perfection. That makes Q trivially true, so I don’t expect any disagreement with it. P is trickier to establish. If, as I’ve been told, a “principle” just is a cause, then P must not be true of the purely actual actualizer on Thomism. For if it were, then something would cause the purely actual actualizer to exemplify its perfections. If the cause were the purely actual actualizer itself, that would be a circular explanation; pure act just is its perfections. While we may distinguish between perfections and the exemplification of perfections, the purely actual actualizer’s perfections still can’t non-circularly explain their own exemplification. But if the cause were something beyond the purely actual actualizer, then the purely actual actualizer’s existence would causally depend on something else. In other words, something would actualize pure act’s potential for existence, which is a contradiction in terms. Being purely actual entails lacking any potential.

But really I only need P to be true of all individual beings or all x’s other than pure act, so that it applies to all potentials. And it seems to me that this is plausible enough. There’s no incoherence in a potential’s having a principle by which it exists. Indeed, the Thomist will think that something must explain the potential’s existence.

Another way to support 1 is to observe, as I have before, that potentials play some role in bringing about motion and change in actual objects. Indeed, this is essential to the work the Thomist wants a potential to do. But this suggests that potentials are as much a part of the actual world as any. Further, given that potentials have these causal powers, they have what Thomists call “active potencies.” That’s just what causal powers are in the Thomistic metaphysic. But I take it Thomists believe that whatever has active potency also has some perfection. So a potential must have some perfection, which means there must be some principle determining it to that perfection.

Harrison takes the position that it’s incoherent for a potential to be actual. His reductio is reproduced below:

We might also say that act is the principle by which being is determined to some specific perfection; while potency is the principle by which being is undetermined but determinable to some specific perfection. So, in the example of a cup of hot tea, act is the principle by which the tea is hot; and potency is the principle by which the tea is capable of being cold, even though at the present moment it is not cold. If we do not admit that there is some aspect of the being of the tea that is presently undetermined but determinable, then we cannot explain the reality of change when the tea cools down. If the tea is completely determined already in every respect, and is in no way further determinable, then it could never change at all.

The problem with saying that a potential is something actual, then, is that it makes the potential something determined. But since a potential is by definition essentially undetermined, we have this contradiction on our hands: that a potential is now determined undetermined-ness. It becomes both determined and undetermined. This results insofar as saying that a potential, as a capacity, is something actual, something which actually exists, means that we must say that it is determined to some kind of actual existence, namely the kind of existence which is a capacity. Here a “capacity” is being treated as something positive in its own right, as a kind of perfection; but this is contrary to the very nature of what a capacity is.

Note that Harrison slides from saying that being is determinable to some perfection to saying that a being (i.e., a cup of hot tea) is determinable to some perfection (i.e., coldness), and then to saying that an aspect of the being of a being (i.e., either the heat or the coldness of the tea, I surmise) is determinable.

The reductio evinces a linguistic confusion. If a potential is determined undeterminedness, it doesn’t follow that it’s both determined and undetermined. The thing we know to be undetermined is the bearer of the potential, the thing that has the undeterminedness, not the undeterminedness itself. I see no more reason to think that undeterminedness is undetermined than to think that redness is red. More than this, I see plenty of reason to think that a potential, and so undeterminedness, is to some extent determined. To be determined to a perfection, or to an attribute, is just to have a particular attribute; we say a thing with a particular attribute is “determined” to this attribute because having this attribute rather than that is a kind of determinacy or definiteness. And of course, potentials have particular attributes. I’ve given examples of these attributes above and could give more upon request.

That said, I find it initially plausible that potentials have potentials for existence, especially if potentials for existence are either essences or principles by which things don’t but are able to exist. Assuming that a potential has actual existence at the very same moment at which its potential for said existence is being actualized, it follows that a potential has a potential for existence even while it exists; otherwise, its potential for existence couldn’t be undergoing actualization. So a potential is simultaneously determined and undetermined to the perfection of existence. But if I endorse that claim, I directly contradict myself, by simultaneously affirming and denying that a potential is determined to the perfection of existence. That won’t do. So, either potentials for existence aren’t principles by which things are undetermined to existence (but rather are merely principles by which things are determinable to existence), or Feser is strictly speaking incorrect in his claim that the existence of an actual thing presupposes the concurrent actualization of its potential for existence.

I’ll offer a brief consideration in favor of the former option. If Harrison is right to identify the essence of X with the potential to exist as X, then it would seem that potentials for existence are possessed by things even while they exist (and if potentials for existence are ever indexed to times, then potentials to exist at time t are possessed by things even while they exist at t). For surely essences don’t cease to be possessed by what they’re essences of once they give rise to actual things bearing the attributes characteristic of those essences. For instance, the essence of a dog remains that of the dog, and remains in existence, even when the dog comes into existence.

Harrison thinks it would be problematic even to contend that a potential is determined to one perfection and undetermined to another:

Now, again, Bavar might escape the pain of strict logical contradiction by contending that a capacity is determined and undetermined in different respects. This reply itself, however, is problematic for a number of reasons. For if contradiction is truly to be avoided, the different respects in which the capacity is determined and undetermined must be really distinct, which means that necessarily the capacity must consist of at least two really distinct principles: that whereby it is determined, and that whereby it is undetermined but determinable. But these are just the principles of act and potency, as we have seen. So the capacity as understood here must really itself be composed of act and potency. But then, on Bavar’s view, we must also say that this further potency is also something actual, and hence also determined and undetermined in two different respects, and hence also composed of two distinct principles of act and potency. And this will continue for each further stage ad infinitum.

The problem (ignoring the mereological language like “composed,” which raises a host of issues that I don’t want to get into here) is that every potential has another potential, so there’s an infinite regress of potentials. This is only a problem, though, if the existence of infinitely many things/principles is a problem. I see no reason to think so. The best arguments against the possibility of an infinite past don’t appear to extend to infinite collections of potentials existing in a finite period of time. Moreover, Thomists generally grant that an infinite past may be possible while presenting the argument from motion. That’s one way that their argument from motion is supposed to be more appealing than other cosmological arguments, such as the kalam. Harrison is free to dissent from this concessive approach, at the expense of making Feser’s argument from the impossibility of a beginningless hierarchical causal series (of existence-actualizers) look unnecessary and hardly superior to the kalam’s argument from the impossibility of a beginningless past.

Perhaps the problem is supposed to be that this constitutes an infinite hierarchical causal series, and infinite hierarchical series are either impossible or explanatorily inefficacious. But this is not an infinite series of potentials actualizing the existence of other potentials. It is rather an infinite series of potentials being possessed by other potentials.

It seems appropriate for me to quote Harrison’s account of potential for existence again, since I have doubts about it that I didn’t raise in the discussion of Feser’s argument from motion:

Every individaul substance has its own act of existing which gives being to the whole. An act of existing actualizes an essence, which considered in itself would just be the potential to exist in a certain way (e.g., the essence of a dog, considered in itself, is the potential to exist as a dog). But because of the finite nature of creatures, an act of existing never actualizes the full range of potentials inherent within a given essence. The essence of tea has the potential to be either hot or cold, but never hot and cold at the same time. So the essence is given existence by the act of existing and becomes a thing, a substance; but the essence of the substance is never fully or completely actualized at once. A potential is real, therefore, not because it has its own act of existing, or its own actual existence, but because it belongs to something which does have an act of existing, as part of its essence which is currently unactualized.

The conclusion that a potential isn’t real in virtue of its own act of existing might’ve followed if all potentials were directed toward existence, but there are also potentials for action (e.g., the potential for coldness) which are directed toward particular states (e.g., coldness) of existent things. I don’t believe Harrison wants to say potentials for action are all numerically identical to potentials for existence. So, despite the above, potentials for action may still be real in virtue of their own acts of existing.

But is it even true that potentials for existence aren’t real in virtue of their own acts of existing? Harrison thinks so because an essence, which just is a potential for existence, is never fully actualized at once. Only some of the many potentials inherent within an essence are actualized at any given time. In support of this, he gives the example of tea’s essence, to which potentials to be hot and to be cold are inherent. Tea is never hot and cold simultaneously, so only one of these potentials can be actualized at any given time. That means tea’s essence can’t be fully actualized at once. But there are multiple problems with this argument:

  1. It’s not essential to tea that it be able to be hot or cold. Imagine a cup of tea that lacks the ability to become cold. Whenever it gets frigid outside, and you leave the tea out in the cold, the tea still doesn’t become cold. This would surely be odd from actual-worlders’ point of view. We might think “That’s no normal cup of tea.” But we wouldn’t conclude “That’s not a cup of tea.” The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, of a hypothetical cup of tea that lacks the ability to become hot.
  2. What reason do we have to think that tea’s essence isn’t something of a special case? Perhaps the potentials inherent within many other essences are able to be actualized all at once. But then those essences are potentials for existence that may well be real in virtue of their acts of existing.
  3. Even if an essence can’t be fully actualized at once, that doesn’t mean it can’t have its own act of existing. One reason for this is that being actualized and being actual are two different things. An essence or potential is actualized when the perfection(s) toward which it’s directed, such as hotness in the case of tea’s essence and inherent potentials (as Harrison conceives of tea’s essence and inherent potentials, that is), actually exists. The potential for hotness is not the same thing as the hotness toward which it’s directed, so the former can actually exist while the latter doesn’t. For an essence to be fully actualized, all of the potentials inherent within that essence must be actualized. But for an essence to be “fully” actual, it just needs to actually exist, which I believe is the case as long as the tea exists and perhaps even while it doesn’t exist. Even Harrison has generously granted that being actual without being actualized is strictly logically consistent.

Before I bring this lengthy post to a close, I’d like to return to the question of whether potentials can have other potentials. It seems to me that Harrison’s conception of potential for existence entails that potentials have other potentials. Surely there are attributes which are essential to potentials; for example, it’s essential to the potential for existence that it be for existence. That can’t be if potentials lack essences. But then, on Harrison’s view, potentials must have potentials for existence.

I’d like to thank Harrison, and Dwight Stanislaw who helped him think through matters relevant to this exchange, so much for engaging with my critiques of Feser and the Aristotelian act-potency metaphysic. It has helped me immensely to understand my opponents’ perspective. I look forward to Harrison’s future replies. Harrison has already written a second blog post addressing part of my post “Attacking Feser Again. Su Me! (pt. 1),” and I’m eager to share my thoughts on that as well.

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Partial Explanation: Better than None

by Ben B.

We’re quite confident that a cake will never show up out of thin air. This is largely based on our past experience. A cake always comes into existence as a result of (a) the mixing of several ingredients, none of which is itself a cake, and (b) the use of kitchen appliances by an intelligent being that intends to make a cake out of the ingredients. The ingredients in (a) are what Aristotle calls a “material cause” of the cake, which is stuff that makes up the cake. The appliances and intelligent being in (b), on the other hand, are what Aristotle calls an “efficient cause” of the cake, which, since the cake has parts, is what builds the cake out of those parts.

It seems that, in order for the existence of the cake to be fully explained, there must be both a material cause and an efficient cause. But more than this, there must be enough things of the right kind constituting the material cause and the efficient cause. A material cause consisting solely of icing and milk would not fully explain the cake’s existence. What about the batter, for instance? That’s kind of important. Further, an efficient cause consisting solely of run-of-the-mill kitchen appliances would not fully explain the cake. Appliances don’t bake cakes all on their own. Similar things can be said about the causes required to fully explain other objects.

There’s a pretty strong tendency, at least among contemporary philosophers, to regard non-full explanations, especially ones like “The cake exists because I mixed icing with milk,” as failing to be explanations at all. Or, if they can be called partial explanations, then they’re no better at explaining facts than no explanation at all. I disagree. Think about it. Person A says a cake popped into existence out of nothingness. Person B says a cake was made from preexisting icing and milk. Who explains the cake better: A or B? Neither? No, I’m pretty sure B explains it better. You might be thinking, “Okay, but Ben, that’s still not a real explanation. The icing and milk simply don’t explain the cake, even though they come closer than nothingness comes to explaining it.” You say “po-tay-toe,” I say “po-tah-toe.” There’s still a relevant difference between showing up out of thin air and being formed from icing and milk.

So let’s get more precise about what it takes for a less-than-full explanation to be a partial explanation rather than no explanation at all. Intuitively, there is some object that my mixing icing with milk does fully explain: milky icing. To be sure, milky icing isn’t a cake, but it’s a lot more like a cake than what nothingness is capable of fully explaining, which is… nothing. Likewise, if I stir icing by itself, I end up with stirred icing. Stirred icing isn’t a cake, but it’s a lot more like a cake than nothingness is. So we can put these explanations on a spectrum of less-than-full explanations: nothingness doesn’t even partially explain a cake, stirred icing partially explains a cake, and milky icing partially but more fully (than mere icing) explains a cake.

Related image

What does it mean for what explanation X fully explains to be more similar to a cake than what explanation Y fully explains? Since a cake is an object that occupies space at a certain time, I’ll use a similarity metric similar to the one metaphysician David Lewis uses to compare possible worlds, which are worlds we can imagine but that may not actually exist. He says, roughly, that the more similar the distributions of physical stuff are across space and throughout time in a group of possible worlds, the more similar those possible worlds are. Now, to apply this to cake: Call the distribution of physical stuff across the space occupied by the thing X fully explains “X-dist,” the distribution of physical stuff across the space occupied by the thing Y fully explains “Y-dist,” and the distribution of physical stuff across the space occupied by cake “cake-dist.” What X fully explains is more similar to a cake than what Y fully explains is if X-dist is more similar to cake-dist than Y-dist is.

So, for example, say what X fully explains is milky icing and what Y fully explains is stirred icing. One way of using my metric to compare how similar the two are to cake is, while they’re both partly made of icing like cake is, milky icing differs from stirred icing in that the former contains milk like cake does. In that way, milky icing is more like cake than stirred icing is. However, if I’m not mistaken, the physical parts of a cake are distributed in such a way that the icing is not located where the milk is located. The milk is mixed into the cake sans icing, and then the icing is spread on top of the cake. In that way, stirred icing is more like cake than milky icing is; the milk is misplaced in milky icing, but there is no misplaced milk in stirred icing. So we may be uncertain whether milky icing or stirred icing bears more overall similarity to cake. We can debate such minutiae all we want, but no one should question that milky icing-dist or stirred icing-dist is more similar to cake-dist than nothingness-dist is. Thus, we should agree that what nothingness fully explains, namely more nothingness, is less similar to cake than what mixing icing with milk or stirring icing fully explains. But the closer an explanation gets you to what you’re trying to explain, the more successful it is as an explanation. So a partial explanation is better than no explanation at all.

What if you’re seeking an explanation of something non-physical, like a soul? X more fully explains a soul than Y does if what X fully explains has more properties characteristic of a soul than what Y fully explains has. For instance, suppose it’s characteristic of a soul that it’s able to exist forever. Suppose further that being B1 has the power to create non-physical things that are able to exist forever, whereas being B2 has the power to create only non-physical things that aren’t able to exist forever. Other things being equal, B1 more fully explains the existence of a soul than B2 does.

It’s tempting to think there are cases where a fully explained thing is more similar to cake than nothingness, and yet what fully explains that thing fails to even partially explain cake. After all, it seems any fully explained thing is more similar to a cake than nothingness is. For any thing, whether explained or not, has existence and likely a few other properties in common with cake, but nothingness doesn’t. But there are many fully explained things that apparently bear no meaningful resemblance to cake. Consider a lifeless planet, say a gas giant. This is nothing like a cake, so how does a full explanation of a gas giant even partially explain a cake, even though a gas giant is of course made of atoms like a cake is? It’s important to remember that some partial explanations are fuller than others. So while we’re initially inclined to think fully explaining a gas giant falls short of partially explaining a cake, upon further reflection it’s hard to rule out that fully explaining a gas giant just explains a cake to a ridiculously miniscule extent.

To avoid confusion, however, I must note that the kind of explanation I’m interested in is, as philosophers say, “factive.” That is, to partially explain something is to exist and actually lead to the existence of the thing explained, but without completely answering the question of why it exists. But when a full explanation of a gas giant leads only to that gas giant’s existing, and not a cake’s existing, there is no cake to be explained. So a cake is not partially explained by what fully explains the gas giant in that case. The only conceivable case where a full explanation of a gas giant,** say the formation of a rocky core followed by the accumulation of gas in the atmosphere, partially explains a cake is one where that process does, rather unexpectedly, yield a cake.

Image result for gas giant cake

Likewise, a cake is only partially explained by my mixing icing with milk, or stirring icing by itself, if a cake happens to result from my doing that.

Of course, if we’re interested in the explanation of a particular cake or soul, we have to consider the context in which the cause acts as well. Someone’s mixing icing with milk, or exercising a power to create a non-physical thing that’s able to survive endlessly, two days ago can’t even partially explain how a cake, or a soul, came to be five minutes ago. Someone’s stirring icing in the backyard (without eventually taking the icing elsewhere) can’t even partially explain how a cake came to be in the kitchen. What can partially explain how a cake came to be in the kitchen five minutes ago is that, immediately prior, someone mixed icing with milk in the kitchen. And what can partially explain how a soul came to be five minutes ago is that, five minutes ago, someone exercised a power to create a non-physical thing that’s able to survive endlessly.

Stay tuned for my application of this line of thought to arguments from contingency!

**Or what would fully explain a gas giant, were a gas giant to result. We can either conceive of both a gas giant and a cake resulting from accretion, or conceive of just a cake resulting from accretion, in which case no gas giant is around to be fully explained.

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Good Omens: Reflecting on Death, Heaven, and Hell

by John Lopilato (aka. Counter Apologist)

So there’s a new Amazon series called “Good Omens” which seems to be a BBC-like show about an angel and a demon who have been tasked by their respective sides to stay on Earth and win souls for their masters. It’s a bit lighthearted on how it tackles the supernatural battle between heaven and hell, though it has serious moments trying to break through.

I’ve not finished what is released so far so please don’t be posting spoilers, but having watched the first 3 episodes last night I did get struck by one key moment that has relevance for the atheist/philosophy of religion game.


The premise of the show is about how the demon and angel have become unlikely friends over their centuries on earth and are taken aback by their sides starting the events which will kick off Armageddon, the war to end the world. They are now working diligently to try and avert the Antichrist from coming into his power as an 11 year old boy to kick off said end of the world.

One episode takes us through their friendship through the centuries. Eventually they get close enough that the demon Crowley asks the angel for a “suicide pill” in case things ever go pear shaped.  Aziraphale, the angel, immediately refuses; saying he can’t risk helping a demon in such a capacity.

A few hundred years later we see the demon planning a robbery on a church with some followers, afterwards we see the angel show up unexpectedly, not wanting Crowley to risk getting harmed at the robbery he has delivered to him what he wants to steal – the suicide pill – holy water.

It is then revealed that Crowley is to be very careful with the container, because the holy water will not just destroy his body, but everything about him.  A real “suicide pill” for a demonic spiritual being, something that will truly end his existence.

Now I’ve no idea if it gets used or will be destroyed before Crowley uses it, but given that there supposedly will be a Season 2, I’m guessing not yet.

Still, this sort of ‘loophole’ to the generic concept of being stuck in either a heaven or a hell that is central to the Christian mythos is pretty interesting. The show is allowing for a “third way” to simply cease to exist.

Honestly, I think if I found out that there were such things as heaven and hell I would so desperately wish for a suicide pill option, something to avoid either heaven or hell. There’s just something about the idea that my ultimate destiny is beyond my control that I find repulsive; I’m ultimately a pawn that will be cast into one of two piles and frankly if those are the options, I wish to be able to avoid playing the game entirely by being able to cease to exist.

EDIT: I’ve realized that ceasing to exist when I die is as much beyond my control as being forced to go to heaven or a hell when I die; so the above point is not quite right.  I believe what I’m really feeling here is that I take solace in the fact that when I die, I cease to exist. I find comfort in the idea that if everything goes pear shaped, if I want off this ride, I can get off.

I think if I made it to heaven I’d probably ask that of whatever god ran the place; if going into heaven didn’t so fundamentally change me that I no longer wanted to cease to exist.

Preserving Autonomy

The latter point is what Christians think solves any of the apprehensions some have to the idea of an eternity in heaven, especially if it turns out to be some kind of perpetual church service where we just praise god for eternity. The idea is “well you’ll want to do that once you get there!”.

The thing is, I’m not sure the idea of an infinite church service is all that appealing, even when I was a believer. I mean I accepted the latter explanation, that if it was, that when I’m in heaven I’ll just want to be doing that, but there is something to be said of preserving my autonomy.

What does preserving my autonomy mean? It means being able to maintain my desires and preferences.

Consider a scenario where you don’t like a particular activity, lets say golf for example.

If you hear that heaven entails a never ending golf game, where you just continually tee off for all eternity and not get sick of the game.  That’s not particularly appealing if you currently don’t like golf  in the first place.  Heck it’s not appealing if you love golf but the idea of only playing the same thing for eternity is going to wear thin after a while.

Saying that “Well don’t worry, when you get there you’re going to be in a state where you want to do nothing but play golf!”isn’t going to help if I don’t want to “want to” play golf. I’m perfectly happy in my non-golf enjoying state; I happen to like other games far more, what about playing those?

At this point you’re effectively talking me into a pleasure machine thought experiment. Once I step into the pleasure machine it won’t matter what happens, I’ll just axiomatically be happy, even if things happen which I would currently believe would make me incredibly sad, or things that ought to make me sad.

The thing about pleasure machine thought experiments is that ultimately we are horrified by the idea of just axiomatically being in one state, even if it’s pleasure, regardless of what’s going on. The thought experiment reveals to us that our autonomy is important to us.

Wanting to Change?


That all said, I’m not completely sure I’m convinced that autonomy is the end of the story, or the highest priority.  After all it is not hard to think of situations where I want to be able to change things about myself.  A common refrain you hear from some LBGT people who find themselves in a society/family that oppresses them is that they wish they could just ‘take a pill’ and be straight/cis/whatever so the problems society pushes on them would go away.  I can think of areas in my own life I wish I could change about my disposition – that I enjoyed exercise more or that I’d be able to control my appetite better.  So my attachment to preserving my autonomy it’s not purely about preserving my current states as they are right now.

Still, part of my preferences now are that I wish to improve my willpower and dedication to doing things good for myself, including want to improve my diet and exercise regimen. Perhaps I will be able to accomplish that goal, or I must make peace with what I am and accept it.  Still, I can also say that while I can think of areas I may want to change, I can think of areas where I wouldn’t want my preferences to change. I am prone to sarcasm and humor, joking often even in serious situations or while working in stressful situations where I’m part of a team under pressure. That’s part of what makes me, me. We are in some part, maybe fully, defined by our desires and dispositions.  I don’t want to not be that guy in the group, or to change that facet of my personality.

The Theistic Counterargument

I think this plays into the theistic response to the line of argument I’m developing here. I believe the Christian or theistic counter argument to all this is to say that “but praising god is praising goodness itself, and so you should want to be such that you always do the good thing, which would entail wanting to exalt the good!”

In order to steelman this idea a bit, I think we should explore what it means.

The reply effectively boils the entire debate about preferences for heaven vs. non-existence away and makes it about the nature of the good.  I’m ignoring hell here since hell is defined in such a way that you axiomatically don’t want to be there.

On reflection the areas I wish I could change myself are in areas that are normative: health being one, but moral. All of us could stand to be better people, to always be kind even when we’re having a bad day or circumstances make us predisposed to be a pain (my lack of sleep caused by my toddler is an acute example).

By making goodness center on the nature of a god, we axiomatically would want to change such that we better reflected goodness.  Any desire we’d have to preserve our autonomy in ways that go against that good would be rooted in a sinful/rebellious nature.

Does it work?


Here’s where I’m supposed to be The Counter Apologist and explain why such a theistic response obviously fails. Thing is, I don’t think I can say it fails. I don’t think it necessarily works either.

I think it punts.

Much like in Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology, Christianity has warrant “if it is true”. I’ve heard this called “the punt to metaphysics” in his epistemology and I think we come to the same kind of point here.

If goodness is really rooted in the nature of a god, then the counter argument works. If it does not, then our instincts to preserve our autonomy in our preferences is not misguided and the idea of heaven actually is as revolting as I now imagine it to be.

Reflecting on it leaves me still on my side of preferring non-existence to heaven. Much like the LGBT example, the story ends up with the truth that those people realizing that they can’t (nor should they want to!) change themselves in their dispositions, and so the stories with a happy ending is them changing the society they find themselves in (by leaving their situation) and living in a place that accepts them for who and what they are.

But it’s incredibly important to know WHY I come to this conclusion: Because I’m not convinced theism, let alone Christianity is true.


I Could Be Convinced


Lately I’ve had a lot of debates about the resurrection of Jesus and miracles in general. A repeated theme is the fact that verifiable miracles do not occur, at least in our present day.  I hold that if those were to start occurring and I could get a scenario where I can empirically verify a miracle was happening, I’d convert. I’ve already written about how verifiable miracles could be used to prove the truth of Christianity specifically, let alone theism more generally.

If that were to happen, I’d have a lot to change. I’d have to completely rework my conception of what “goodness” is in general, moving from a view that goodness doesn’t exist in it’s own kind of platonic form but rather is relative for “goodness for” something to embracing goodness being it’s own entity based on nature of god.

As it is, given my lack of miraculous demonstration, and my evaluation of what goodness is, I don’t see the theory of goodness being rooted in god’s nature as very plausible.

The Lynch Pin


Ultimately this kind of thing is what under girds so much of the theist-atheist disagreement.

The problem of evil, or gratuitous evil follows from what one thinks about good and evil in general.

The Christian can say that goodness is rooted in god’s nature and so therefore there are no gratuitous evils because god could only create a world where the evils that exist are the ones that have moral justification for allowing, even if we don’t know what that justification is.

An atheist accepting another account of good and evil (say non-natural moral realism of Derek Parfit) would be able to point to some examples of evil that would consequently have no justification for their existence under that moral theory, and so would instead say that yes, gratuitous evils exist, therefore there is no god.

“One person’s modus ponens in another persons modus tollens.” comes into play here, and our pre-commitments to seemingly unrelated views are going to inform our conclusions on this kind of side issue.

One thing I’m stuck with after all this reflection is just how seemingly impossible it is to be able to prove one side or the other; regardless of how strongly I feel about my convictions.

What I’m left thinking is that if I’m going to continue the atheist advocacy hobby of mine, it’s going to necessitate a change in approach.

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Attacking Feser Again. Su Me! (pt. 1)

I’ve been having a fun, enlightening exchange with Matthew Su, one of the admins of the Thomism Discussion Group on Facebook. He wrote a critique of my video “Stage 1 of Feser’s Argument from Motion.” Then I wrote a whole Google Doc defending my video, and he wrote a detailed reply. Now I’m bringing the conversation to all of you!

By way of contextualizing what follows, I’ll note that Matthew has challenged these theses defended in my videos:

  1. A potential (also called a “passive potency”) is an actual (existing) thing in the same sense that a brick is an actual thing.
  2. A series of objects where each member actualizes the subsequent member’s potential for existence, such that the removal of any member would prevent the actualization of all subsequent members’ existence, can have a first member (i.e., member that doesn’t have its own potential for existence actualized by another member) with potential for action. But that means such a series, which is a particular kind of what Feser calls a “hierarchical causal series,” needn’t terminate with a purely actual actualizer, pace the first stage of Feser’s argument from motion. For a purely actual actualizer is something that both (a) has no potential of any kind (and thus counts as purely actual, at least as long as it isn’t one and the same thing as a potential) and (b) causes a potential to be actualized (and thus counts as an actualizer).
  3. Having potential for action but not for existence doesn’t entail being made up of distinct parts, contra Feser who claims that it entails having a purely actual part and another part that is potentiality. (This is important because, if the hypothetical first member described in (2) is made up of parts, Feser argues that it follows that it must be actualized by those parts and thus not be the first member. But that contradicts the assumption that it’s the first member. Uh-oh, reductio!)

For those who don’t know, a potential is a capacity (which lies within the object bearing it) to undergo intrinsic change, as opposed to extrinsic or mere “Cambridge” change. To use Wikipedia’s example, a capacity to become 10 cm taller is a potential. A capacity to become the same height as someone else is not a potential. One can become the same height as someone else even though one’s own height stays exactly the same, provided that the other person’s height changes as needed. Remaining the same height but changing so as to have the same height as someone else is merely an extrinsic or relational change, in that it’s just a change in how one relates to other things (in this case, another person). Indeed, one might go so far as to deny that this is a genuine change at all. Why don’t Thomists regard capacities for mere Cambridge changes as potentials? Because they maintain that God, being purely actual, has no potential, but at the same time they allow that God undergoes extrinsic Cambridge changes. They’re probably comfortable with allowing this because they see these so-called “changes” as hardly qualifying as genuine changes, so they can retain their belief that God is for all practical purposes changeless.

This is at least a rough-and-ready characterization of what Thomists mean by “potential.” One may object to this characterization, since it’s difficult to see how it captures what Feser means when he speaks of a potential for existence; it may only capture what is meant by “potential for action,” which refers to any potential other than a potential for existence. For beginning to exist is not so much a change in an object as a change in whether there is an object at all. Before the object exists, there is no object to undergo change. But I don’t know of a better statement of the Thomistic idea of potential than the one I gave. Maybe someone well-versed in Thomism can help me modify my definition so as to accommodate Feser’s use of “potential for existence.”

Now I’ll begin my rejoinder to Matthew’s latest reply. While I was defending my video, I asked Matthew to clarify his conception of what a part is. He explained:

A part is just the object of a real distinction within a thing. It’s what allows us to posit more than one real feature of things: we avoid contradiction between saying that it is both X and not-X, by saying it is ‘partially’ X and partially not-X. And these must be real metaphysical parts, if the attributes do different metaphysical work . . . Now since act and potency in a thing are irreducible to each other, that is, a thing is not in act in the same respect in which it is potential, if a thing is in some sense both in act and in potency, it has act and potency as real parts.

This is a helpful explanation, but it leaves me with a few questions. What is meant by “within a thing”? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t literally mean “spatially contained inside a thing,” although in many cases parts can be described this way. Here’s my best guess: for there to be a real distinction within a thing is for there to be more than one intrinsic property of that thing. So a part, being the object of such a real distinction, is a thing that (a) has some but not all of the being/existence of the whole, and (b) contributes to explaining how the whole is both X and not-X at once, where X is an intrinsic feature. For example (assuming controversially, and only temporarily, that being a certain color is an intrinsic feature), if a sweater has red and green stripes, we posit that the sweater has both parts that are red and parts that are green to explain how the sweater can be both red (hence not green, or more precisely, not green where it is red) and green (hence not red). So, unfortunately, there’s nothing logically impossible about Freddy Krueger’s look. Maybe he really does exist…

Image result for freddy krueger

I introduced condition (a), even though Matthew didn’t bring it up, because it seemed like the best replacement for one of the conditions for being a spatial part, namely that the would-be part have some but not all of the spatial extension of the whole. This condition may even help us make sense of what it is for a part to lie “within” a whole without being spatially contained inside the whole. That’s good, because otherwise we would have to worry that my interpretation of Matthew’s account of parthood, which was meant to clarify “within a thing,” failed miserably at its intended purpose. Especially since I used the word “intrinsic” in (b), which presupposes we have some notion of “within.”

At the end of Matthew’s explanation, here’s how he appears to be reasoning (note that “being in act” means actually existing and “being in potency” means either having a potency, which may be a capacity to undergo intrinsic change or instead a causal power, or having specifically a passive potency):

  1. A thing that’s in act and in potency is not in act in the same respect in which it is in potency.
  2. If a thing that’s in act and in potency is not in act in the same respect in which it is in potency, then distinct parts account for the thing’s being in act and its being in potency.
  3. If distinct parts account for the thing’s being in act and its being in potency, then the thing has act and potency as distinct parts.
  4. Therefore, the thing has act and potency as distinct parts.

But, courtesy of Freddy’s sweater, we can parody this argument:

  1. Freddy’s sweater, which is red and green, is not red in the same respect in which it is green.
  2. If Freddy’s sweater, which is red and green, is not red in the same respect in which it is green, then distinct parts account for Freddy’s sweater’s being red and its being green.
  3. If distinct parts account for Freddy’s sweater’s being red and its being green, then Freddy’s sweater has red(ness) and green(ness) as distinct parts.
  4. Therefore, Freddy’s sweater has red(ness) and green(ness) as distinct parts.

Now, Thomists may not be inclined to see this conclusion as absurd, but I think many others will, on account of the counterintuitiveness of things having their colors or color properties as parts. After all, it’s more natural to think colored things have parts that are colored than to think they have parts that are colors. A sweater’s having the color red as a part is analogous to 1 apple’s having the number 1 as a part. The color red is not entirely contained in any particular red thing, so how can it be part of any particular red thing? And there is 1 of every particular thing, so how can 1 be part of any particular thing? Now, admittedly, it’s more plausible that we can ostend, or point to, red than that we can ostend 1. We can point to a red object and correctly say, “This is the color red.” This makes it easier to conceive of red as being in space than it is to conceive of the number 1 as being in space. But that doesn’t undermine the point that the color red can’t be fully contained in a particular red thing, as it would be were it part of that thing. However, one might challenge this point on the grounds that red can be distinguished from the color red, like water can be distinguished from the substance/liquid water. It’s perfectly natural to say that water is part of a beverage, even though the substance water is not fully contained within the beverage but rather spread across the planet. Likewise, maybe red is part of Freddy’s sweater, even though the color red is not fully contained within the sweater but rather exists in all red things. But in my opinion, this statement about red doesn’t have the same ring to it that the statement about water does. Hypothesis: this is because “water is part of a beverage” is understood to be equivalent to “a certain amount/volume of water is part of a beverage,” whereas it’s awkward to speak of red as coming in amounts, volumes, or units.

Moreover, as long as the color of Freddy’s sweater is just its disposition to absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, it seems to consist not merely in things intrinsic to the sweater but also in things like the light in the sweater’s environment and the laws of nature governing the interactions between the sweater and light.

It’s even harder to argue that color properties like redness (as opposed to colors like red) are parts of material objects in space-time, because properties are commonly viewed as abstract objects that exist outside of space-time. Michael Dummett argues in his masterful work Frege: Philosophy of Language (particularly the chapter “Proper Names”) that redness, or the property of being red, is not capable of being pointed at like red is, and that for reasons like this we are more justified in believing that “red” refers to an object than in believing that “redness” refers to an object. Now, we might push back on this reasoning by pointing out that it’s common to point to red spots on someone’s skin and say, “This redness is a symptom of rosacea.” Case in point:

rosacea

But then the question becomes whether in sentences like these “redness” means the property of being red, or whether it’s instead synonymous with “red” (used in the way it’s used when someone asks, “What is this thing ‘red’ of which you speak?” and another person replies, “This is that thing, red, of which I speak” while pointing at a red spot on their own skin). If “redness” means the former, then we may be able to point at the property of being red, in which case the property may be located in space as it must be to be a spatial part of a sweater. However, it’s a legitimate question whether the property of being red must literally be spatially located where we’re pointing in order for our simultaneous utterance “That is redness” to be true. On the other hand, if “redness” means the same as “red,” that casts even more doubt on our ability to point at properties and thus on the possibility of properties’ being spatially located within sweaters.

Matthew’s argument and its parody both go wrong in premise 3. (I also have objections to premises 1 and 2, particularly in the first argument, but I’ll save those for later.) In the case of the parody, the distinct parts that account for the sweater’s being red and its being green are not red(ness) and green(ness) but rather stretches of fabric that are red and green. In the case of Matthew’s argument, the distinct parts that account for a thing’s being in act and its being in potency vary quite a bit depending on the kind of thing and the kind of potency, but here’s a general description of the parts. If the thing has parts, all its parts make it up, which means they all actualize its potential to exist (if it has such a potential). So all its parts explain its being in act, and there are intuitively no constraints on what kinds of parts those are, except that they satisfy the conditions for composing the object.

What explains a thing’s being in potency toward existence or action (i.e., having a potency directed toward existence or something else)? Consider a thing that doesn’t exist. We might say, loosely speaking, that the nonexistent thing “has” a potential for existence just in case something existent has the capacity to bring that thing into existence. This thing, being nonexistent, presumably has no parts, which casts doubt on premise 2’s applicability to a nonexistent thing with potency for existence. Certainly, if a nonexistent thing has parts at all, its parts don’t overlap with those of an existent thing bearing the capacity to bring it into existence. You’d expect any parts the nonexistent thing has to be just as nonexistent as it is. A thing that does exist, on the other hand, has a potential for existence just in case its existence was either “imparted to it” or explained by something else, I suppose. So its being in potency toward existence is explained by (a) the thing outside it that explains its existence, or (b) whatever makes it need something else to explain its existence. Its being in potency toward existence may also be partly explained by (c) whatever grounds the possibility of the thing’s existence. (a) is not within the thing with the potential for existence, so it’s implausible that it qualifies as a part of that thing. (b) or (c), on the other hand, could very well be something within the thing.

A thing has a potential for action just in case it has a capacity (that’s not merely a potential for existence) to undergo intrinsic change. But a potential for action and a capacity for intrinsic change are identical, not explanatorily related to each other! To try to explain one in terms of the other would be circular. So let’s distinguish between a capacity and the having of that capacity.  Now we can non-circularly explain the having of a capacity for intrinsic change partly in terms of a thing called a “potency,” or a “capacity.” Let’s be careful, though, not to assume that there is such a thing as a capacity simply because we use the noun “capacity,” which looks like it’s meant to refer to a thing. Maybe having a capacity is like having given up the ghost, in that there needn’t be a ghost for a person to have given up the ghost. To have given up the ghost is just to be dead, and perhaps to have a capacity is just to be able to do something.

So let’s see if anything other than a capacity can account for a thing’s having a capacity to undergo intrinsic change. Here’s one example where that may be the case: Hot coffee’s having a potential to be cold is explained by the motion and location of the molecules in the coffee, the motion and location of the molecules in the coffee’s environment, and perhaps the laws of nature that govern molecular motion and interaction. Clearly some of these explainers are not within the hot coffee, so it’s not plausible that only parts of the coffee explain its being in potency. Moreover, there seems to be no need to posit a potential over and above the listed explainers. I expect that a hefty majority of instances of having a potential can likewise be explained without positing a potential. And if a potential is involved, it’s plausibly reducible to something else we already think exists, like molecular motion and the laws of nature.

Now, one might maintain that the coffee’s environment doesn’t so much explain the coffee’s having a potential to be cold as it explains this potential’s ability to be actualized. But if a potential isn’t able to be actualized, is it a potential at all? Why would we regard the coffee as potentially cold if it weren’t even able to become cold? Moreover, consider that an omnipotent God is capable of turning the coffee into a giraffe. But that doesn’t mean the coffee has a potential to turn into a giraffe. (This thought was inspired by an intelligently written comment I received on my video “Reply to Anthony Nuzzo,” displayed below.)

ruggero giraffe

This raises a question about the relation between a thing’s potential and its external influences: Does a thing only have a potential if it’s likely or common for external influences to actualize it? For the only relevant difference I see between coffee’s possibility of becoming cold and its possibility of becoming a giraffe is that the former possibility is actualized by influences external to the coffee that act quite frequently, whereas the latter possibility must be actualized by external influences (e.g., God or some powerful supernatural being) that rarely, if ever, act so as to actualize it. God doesn’t just go around turning coffees into giraffes. I don’t know why, because that would be pretty freakin’ cool and probably permissible, but I digress.

My reconstruction of Matthew’s reasoning might’ve been uncharitable. Consider the following alternative reconstruction:

  1. A thing’s being in act and its being in potency are really distinct intrinsic properties that would be contradictory sans parts.
  2. If a thing’s being in act and its being in potency are really distinct intrinsic properties that would be contradictory sans parts, then distinct parts account for the thing’s being in act and its being in potency.
  3. If distinct parts account for the thing’s being in act and its being in potency, then the thing has act and potency as distinct parts.
  4. Therefore, the thing has act and potency as distinct parts.

In this reconstruction I only assume that distinct parts account for distinct intrinsic properties that would be contradictory in the absence of those parts (i.e., X and not-X), not that they account for distinct properties of any old kind. Now how does the parody fare?

  1. Freddy’s sweater’s being red and its being green are really distinct intrinsic properties that would be contradictory sans parts.
  2. If Freddy’s sweater’s being red and its being green are really distinct intrinsic properties that would be contradictory sans parts, then distinct parts account for Freddy’s sweater’s being red and its being green.
  3. If distinct parts account for Freddy’s sweater’s being red and its being green, then Freddy’s sweater has red(ness) and green(ness) as distinct parts.
  4. Therefore, Freddy’s sweater has red(ness) and green(ness) as distinct parts.

This argument is not exactly parallel to Matthew’s, because Matthew’s reasoning doesn’t support the first premise of this parody. Matthew said nothing that forces him to accept that the properties of being red and being green are just as intrinsic as the properties of being in act and being in potency. However, it may be just as questionable that being in act and being in potency are entirely intrinsic as it is that being red and being green are entirely intrinsic. Consider that potency is often tied to environmental conditions and laws of nature, as explained above. But suppose it were reasonable to accept (1) in Matthew’s argument while rejecting (1) in the parody. Then in that respect this would be a better parallel to Matthew’s argument:

  1. Freddy’s being 6 ft tall and Freddy’s having a mass of 90 kg are really distinct intrinsic properties that would be contradictory sans parts.
  2. If Freddy’s being 6 ft tall and his having a mass of 90 kg are really distinct intrinsic properties that would be contradictory sans parts, then distinct parts account for his being 6 ft tall and his having a mass of 90 kg.
  3. If distinct parts account for Freddy’s being 6 ft tall and his having a mass of 90 kg, then he has a height of 6 ft (or 6-ft-tallness) and a mass of 90 kg (or 90-kg-massiveness) as distinct parts.
  4. Therefore, Freddy has a height of 6 ft (or 6-ft-tallness) and a mass of 90 kg (or 90-kg-massiveness) as distinct parts.

It’s harder to deny that height and mass are intrinsic properties than it is to deny that color properties are intrinsic. But I think the above argument still succeeds as a parody. I’ll leave figuring out how the argument does so as an exercise for the reader (hint: read the other parts of this post).

Matthew made another comment in favor of viewing potentials as parts later on:

A potential merely associated with, but not part of a being, is not metaphysically a potential of the being. At best, we’d get some sort of Humean constant conjunction between the potency and the being with which it is associated, but then it’s not clear in what way the being with which the potency is associated, is really even a participant in the chain of dependent causes.

This sounds to me like saying that a possession must be part of its owner to be a possession of its owner’s, or that a representation (e.g., a picture) must be part of a being to be a representation of the being. But that’s clearly not the case. All it takes for a possession to be a possession of its owner’s is that the owner possesses it, which is to say that the owner obtained the right to claim the thing as her own. And all it takes for a picture to be a picture of X is that the picture lies at the end of a causal chain beginning with X. Possessions and representations may be associated by something other than Humean constant conjunction with their owners and their “representeds” (to use a term my former professor Robert Brandom is fond of; it’s a short way of saying “things that are represented”), respectively, even though they aren’t parts of these things. For instance, the owner of a possession may constantly hold onto the possession, thereby robustly causing, via physical force, the possession to always be with her. That way the owner isn’t merely constantly conjoined with the possession in the sense that the owner and the possession always happen to be found together. But the possession doesn’t become part of the owner just because the owner carries it around all the time.

(I realize that the “of” in “possession of hers” is closer in meaning to the “of” in “potential of the being” than is the “of” in “representation of a being.” The “of” most relevant to potential is the “of” of owning/having/possessing, because beings have or possess their potentials.)

Likewise, a potential may be associated by something more robust than Humean constant conjunction with its bearer, without being a part of its bearer. Take the example of a vase’s fragility. It’s a potential, more specifically a disposition, to break under certain circumstances. You won’t find the fragility anywhere inside the vase. Of course, you will find the molecules that make up the vase and note that the properties and relations of those molecules account for the vase’s fragility. But the fragility is something separate from the vase’s molecular parts or structure. And while the fragility may have some of the being/existence of the vase, it doesn’t explain the vase’s having really distinct intrinsic features; it just is one of the vase’s features. The fragility can explain some of the vase’s extrinsic features, like its being packaged very carefully before being sent in the mail. I can’t think of an intrinsic feature it explains. I suppose if the vase were partly broken, its fragility would partly explain its having fewer molecular components (since some of them broke off). But it would be odd to maintain that the fragility wasn’t a part of the vase at first, but then it became a part once the vase was partly broken.**

The association between a vase and its potential to break is more robust than Humean constant conjunction. It’s not that fragility just happens to always accompany the molecular structure of a vase, but that the molecular structure causes or grounds the fragility of the vase. Put another way, the fact that the vase has this molecular structure grounds the fact that the vase is fragile. It seems like the fragility of the vase depends on the molecular structure, and the molecular structure generates the fragility.

Notice that an ordinary vase appears to have both potential for action and potential for existence. The vase’s potential for existence is being actualized by the molecules that make up the vase. Does my previous paragraph also apply to my hypothetical first actualizers that only have potential for action, not for existence? Sure! Let’s imagine that these actualizers are point particles which never began to exist. These particles have potentials to change speed, actualized by interactions with other particles. These potentials are partly grounded in the particles’ intrinsic features, like their mass. So these particles have potential for action, and it’s hard to see how it follows that they have potential for existence. If God, or Existence Itself, can exist but not as the result of an actualized potential for existence, point particles can as well. Who’s to say that something outside the particles actualized their existence? It may even be impossible for them not to exist, like theists maintain that it’s impossible for God not to exist, in which case it’s not obvious that the existence of the particles requires any explanation.

In my video I alternatively hypothesized that potentials might be the first actualizers. I don’t even see why the bearers of these potentials must themselves be parts of the causal series, as Matthew suggests. If the potentials are playing the role of the actualizers, then the bearers of the potentials can just step aside and let the potentials do their thing.

Matthew thinks I shoot myself in the foot by suggesting that a potential, rather than a purely actual actualizer, might be the first member of a hierarchical series, because the potential ends up being made up of parts that actualize its existence and so precede it in the series:

It seems that your concept of potency as ‘capacity’ breaks down under analysis into an act/potency composite. You say that a capacity is in some sense actual. Let us grant this. But in order to be a capacity, it must also ‘not-be’ in a certain way, for a capacity is not ‘capacious’ in virtue of having already been realised. That respect in which it “is-not-X, but-directed-toward-X,” is its potency, the respect in which it ‘actually is’ is its act, and these respects cannot be the same. But in this case, it seems you have merely reproduced a further act/potency composite.

There are two kinds of “not-being” that I would associate with the capacity, insofar as it is merely potential. The first is the capacity’s not being exercised, or actualized. The second is the bearer of the capacity’s not being the way it would be were the capacity actualized. Take the example of my dirty laundry’s potential to become clean. While the laundry is dirty, the capacity to get clean remains unactualized, and the laundry is not clean the way it would be were the capacity actualized. I think when Matthew talks about “That respect in which [the capacity] ‘is-not-X, but-directed-toward-X’,” he’s actually talking about the respect in which the bearer, like the dirty laundry, isn’t the way it would be were the capacity actualized but is still directed toward that way of being, like the laundry isn’t clean but is directed toward being clean.

Based on what Matthew wrote about parts, it seems to me that he’s implying a capacity is both actual and not-actual; that is, it’s partially actual and partially not-actual, and the respects in which it’s actual and not-actual can’t be the same. He goes on to infer that, on pain of contradiction, the capacity must have really distinct parts, actuality and potentiality, the first of which is actual and the second of which is not-actual. But in reality, a capacity is wholly actual. The whole capacity actually exists, as does any part of it, if it has parts. To say that it’s partially not-actual is to say that it’s partially nonexistent. I don’t agree there. Now, it’s true that the capacity is actual but the way of being toward which the capacity is directed isn’t actual; the dirty laundry’s capacity to be clean actually exists, but the cleanliness toward which the capacity is directed doesn’t actually exist. But now we’re attributing “X” to a capacity and “not-X” to the way of being toward which it’s directed, rather than attributing both “X” and “not-X” to the same thing. So there’s no need to posit parts to avoid contradictory predications. That’s only necessary when the conflicting predicates are attributed to the same thing.

One might think that the following sentence attributes conflicting predicates to the same thing: “A capacity is both actual and not-actualized.” But to think there’s a conflict here is to confuse being actual with being actualized. For a capacity to be actual is for it to exist. Capacities often exist without being actualized. For a capacity to be actualized is for the way of being toward which it’s directed to exist.

Now, as it happens, I find it likely that all potentials, if there are such things, have both act and potential. I think potentials plausibly all have potentials to exist, just like human beings, tables, etc. have potentials to exist. But I don’t agree that this means all potentials are composites, having actuality and potentiality as distinct parts. So in that sense I deny that potentials are all act-potency composites. Because (a) potentials plausibly don’t occupy space, and (b) whether or not they occupy space, their actual existence is not spatially contained inside of them (if it is, point to it), I conclude that potentials don’t have actual existence as a part in the familiar spatial sense.

Is actual existence a part, in Matthew’s sense, of a potential? I don’t know that a potential’s existence “has” some of the existence that the potential has. It just is some, indeed all, of the existence that the potential has. We don’t generally infer from X’s being Y that X has Y, and I don’t see why we should make an exception in the case of existence’s being existence. But does existence play some role in explaining the potential’s really distinct intrinsic properties? Well, I’m not sure if the potential has really distinct intrinsic properties. Suppose its existence and its potentially existing are its only really distinct intrinsic properties. Then its existence doesn’t explain its intrinsic property of existence; that would be a circular explanation. But it’s hard to see what other intrinsic property a thing’s existence could serve to explain. In this case, the only other intrinsic property to be explained is the potential’s potentially existing, and that is supposed to already be fully explained by the potential’s potential for existence.

But the foregoing supposition (that a potential’s existence and its potentially existing are its only really distinct properties) can be doubted for multiple reasons. One is that, as many philosophers hold, it’s questionable that existence is a property or predicate of existing things at all. One might follow Frege in saying that to attribute existence to X is just to attribute a property to the concept of X, namely the property of something’s falling under or satisfying the concept of X. For example, all it is for a cat to exist is for at least one thing to fall under the concept “cat.” Further, we might doubt the supposition since the properties may well be identical in reality, even though the concepts of existence and potentially existing are prima facie distinct. I mean, the concepts of the divine attributes (e.g., immutability and love) are prima facie distinct, but Thomists think they’re really identical. Why can’t we say the same about the properties of existence and potentially existing? I must admit that I know little about the exact strategies Thomists use to argue that the divine attributes aren’t distinct in reality, but the burden is on Thomists to show that those strategies aren’t double-edged swords. Finally, we can doubt the supposition that the potential has no intrinsic properties other than these two. Indeed, it’s quite plausible that some, if not all, potentials have other intrinsic properties. For example, a potential has the property of being directed toward something. But even given that, it’s doubtful that the potential’s existence plays any role in explaining this directedness. The directedness of a coffee’s potential for coldness, for example, seems to be entirely explained by the coffee’s molecules, the molecules outside the coffee, and the laws of nature governing those molecules’ interactions, just like we observed that its having a potential for coldness is explained by these things. That makes sense; if having a potential is explained by some group of things, the directedness of that potential must also be explained by that group. There is no such thing as having a potential without its being directed toward that which it’s a potential for.

A potential that has a potential for existence needn’t have that as a part either. Even if, as I suggested before, a potential’s being in potency toward existence is explained by something within it, and even if that explainer within it is a part of it, that doesn’t mean the potential’s potential for existence is itself a part of its bearer. Indeed, if a potential for existence is anything like a vase’s fragility, it’s highly plausible that a potential for existence isn’t within its bearer.

To be continued…

Notes

**At this point one may question the relevance of the intrinsic-extrinsic property distinction. While potentials are specifically capacities to undergo change in one’s intrinsic properties, and Thomists associate potentials with parts, I shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Matthew thinks parts always explain really distinct intrinsic features of the whole. Maybe he only thinks parts always explain really distinct features, whether they’re intrinsic or not. After all, if he thinks Freddy’s sweater has red(ness) and green(ness) as parts, and he agrees with me that a sweater’s being red or green consists entirely in its being disposed to absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, then it’s hard to see what intrinsic features he posits red(ness) and green(ness) to explain. They don’t explain themselves, but the properties of being red and of being green aren’t entirely intrinsic anyway, if they’re a matter of the colored object’s being disposed to absorb and reflect certain wavelengths of light.

The colors/color properties of a sweater can in part explain how people interact with the sweater (e.g., if someone likes the colors red and green, that may explain why that person starts wearing a red-and-green-striped sweater), which in turn explains the sweater’s wearing down, which in turn explains some of the sweater’s intrinsic properties after it’s worn down. But that strikes me as the wrong kind of explanation to indicate that the colors/color properties are parts of the sweater. The main reason is again that it implies that the colors/color properties aren’t parts until people’s interactions with the sweater alter its intrinsic properties, which is bizarre. If colors/color properties are ever parts of the sweater, presumably they’re parts of it as long as the sweater has those colors.

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RA015: Debating the Problem of Evil With Justin Schieber and Cameron Bertuzzi

SLIDES FOR YOUTUBE.001.jpegRather than a live debate, what you are about to hear is an audio performance of an already written debate that’s been going on behind the scenes for the last month or so in the form of a series of essays written in reply to each other. The debate was on the problem of evil and it was between Justin Schieber and Cameron Bertuzzi. The debate clocks in at about an hour.

CapturingChristianity.com

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RA014: Paul Moser on Religious Epistemology and God’s Elusiveness

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In this episode Ben Watkins interviews philosopher Dr. Paul Moser. Dr. Moser is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. Professor Moser has published over 80 articles and authored many books including The Elusive God and The Evidence for God; Religious Knowledge Reexamined. Professor Moser’s research interests include epistemology, metaphilosophy, and the philosophy of religion. The interview touches on issues of religious epistemology, the hiddenness of God, and even natural theology.

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RA013: Quentin Smith on Natural Evils and Immaterial Minds


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A few weeks back I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Quentin Smith. We sat down not far from the Western Michigan University Campus where he was professor of philosophy from 1993 until he retired in 2015. Dr. Smith received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Antioch College and his PhD in philosophy from Boston College. He has written and published over 140 articles and has written and co-written several books including one with William Lane Craig titled Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology. While brief, the interview covers a wide variety of subjects from Smith’s 1986 book Felt Meanings of the World to his contributions to the problem of evil focusing on Evil Natural Laws as well as his thoughts on some contemporary arguments for God.

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