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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3 Responses to Attacking Feser Again. Su Me! (pt. 1)

  1. Pingback: A Response to Ben Bavar on Act and Potency, Part 1 – Quaestiones Disputatae

  2. Pingback: Resonse to Ben Bavar on Act and Potency, Part 2 – Quaestiones Disputatae

  3. Fox ITK says:

    well done for working through the minefield on this. the act/potency is probably the most pivotal and important of the Thomistic real distinctions’ and I struggle to clearly understand the ontology. It’s interesting to me that they view God’s ‘potency’ as being reducible to act in that it’s an active potency which is to say an actual power that could possibly not be active (and so not really a potency at all). I struggle to see why then, this isn’t applicable in general- that objects have ‘passive potencies’ or powers which are actually possessed by them but are merely dormant, and can be activated by potential future conditions that could presumably be actualised intrinsically (in the same way as God) but more likely are actualised by extrinsic objects that are actual themselves (though possibly temporally dislocated when considering the possible interaction). This implies something like a dispositionalist view, which even Humeans can help themselves to, The vase molecular pattern is actual, but it’s actual structure is such that it can potentially be disturbed thus it is in virtue of this that it is fragile, we can say the truthmaker for that fact is the actual parts of the vase etc (which amount to a disposition) + some possible condition that disturbs it’s stability.

    What compels me to appeal to potency as a sort of metaphysical part? I struggle to buy it, and what usually happens is either a question begging assertion is offered- ”without potency as a distinct from actuality, nothing could ever change! Things change therefore there is real potency!” or an appeal to one of the other famed real distinctions, which I am unlikely to buy (often the Thomistic arguments just circle around the distinctions as reasons to accept the other distinctions in my experience).

    I guess they want to say that we can’t just make use of active potency’ which is reduced to act, because we need to explain how it is that a thing can be affected and change without the potency being actualised of said change. But again, we are talking about potency to be changed as being a change to what is actual- the causal process acts on that ontology, rather than some mysterious drawing down of some potency part making it actual.

    Like

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