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 have itself.

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 exercising, a potential for existence, perhaps potentials, which aren’t purely actual, can exist without exercising the potentials for existence they possess.

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 a 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 with certain attributes. Indeed, the Thomist will think that something must explain the potential’s existence and attributes.

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 the tea (as opposed to its essence) 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.

This entry was posted in Feser, Feser's Five Proofs, Thomism. Bookmark the permalink.

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