Feser’s Case for God – Part 5: Potential Attributes vs. Contingent Attributes

POTENTIAL ATTRIBUTES VS. CONTINGENT ATTRIBUTES

I think (i.e. strongly suspect) it is important to understand the relationship between Edward Feser’s concept of the potential attributes of X and logical possibility.  Feser does not provide clarification on this point, at least not in Chapter 1 of his book Five Proofs of the Existence of God (hereafter: FPEG), where he introduces and makes use of the concept of the potential attributes of X.  So, I think it is worthwhile to try to figure this out for ourselves.

In particular, I think it is important to understand the relationship between Feser’s concept of  the potential attributes of X and the somewhat similar concept of the logically contingent attributes of X.  So, I’m going to make an effort to develop a clearer understanding of this subject.

 

DEFINITIONS CONCERNING LOGICAL POSSIBILITY

Logically Contingent Attribute:

An attribute A is a logically contingent attribute of X

IF AND ONLY IF

A is a logically possible attribute of X and A is NOT a logically necessary attribute of X.

Logically Possible Attribute:

An attribute A is a logically possible attribute of X

IF AND ONLY IF 

the statement that “X has attribute A” is a logically possible statement.

Logically Necessary Attribute:

An attribute A is a logically necessary attribute of X

IF AND ONLY IF 

the statement that “X has attribute A” is a logically necessary statement.

 

EXAMPLES OF TYPES OF ATTRIBUTES

  • Being married is NOT a logically possible attribute of a bachelor.
  • Being four sided is NOT a logically possible attribute of a triangle.
  • Being six feet tall is a logically possible attribute of a bachelor.
  • Having a right angle is a logically possible attribute of a triangle.
  • Being six feet tall is NOT a logically necessary attribute of a bachelor.
  • Having a right angle is NOT a logically necessary attribute of a triangle.
  • Being unmarried is a logically necessary attribute of a bachelor.
  • Being three sided is a logically necessary attribute of a triangle.
  • Being six feet tall is a logically contingent attribute of a bachelor (because this attribute is both logically possible and NOT logically necessary for a bachelor).
  • Having a right angle is a logically contingent attribute of a triangle (because this attribute is both logically possible and NOT logically necessary for a triangle).

 

EXCLUSION OF LOGICALLY NECESSARY ATTRIBUTES

I have defined the concept of a logically contingent attribute so that this EXCLUDES logically necessary attributes, because we are concerned with analysis of the concept of CHANGE, and there is an important feature of logically necessary attributes that relates to CHANGE.

It is important to note that a person who is a bachelor can, of course, become a married person.  But when he does so, he instantaneously and necessarily ceases to be a bachelor.  All bachelors are necessarily unmarried, but it is fairly easy for a bachelor to get married, and thus to cease being a bachelor.  What is ruled out here is the possibility of someone becoming a married person while remaining a bachelor.

A triangle cannot BECOME a three-sided plane figure, because the attribute of having three sides is a logically necessary attribute of a triangle.  We can take a square object (having four sides), remove one side of it, and connect the remaining sides to form a triangle (having just three sides).  So, the number of sides that an object or figure has can be CHANGED, but because triangles necessarily have three sides,  it is NOT logically possible for a triangle to change from having four sides to having three sides, because the initial four-sided object could not have been a triangle.  Nor can a figure change from having three sides to having four sides, and remain a triangle through that process.

 

TWO GENERAL CASES

There are TWO GENERAL CASES concerning the relationship between the referents of the phrases “the potential attributes of X” and “the logically contingent attributes of X”:

I.  The phrase “the potential attributes of X” refers to the same set of attributes as the phrase “the logically contingent attributes of X” (for any X, where X specifies a particular being or a category of beings).

OR

II. It is NOT the case that the phrase “the potential attributes of X” refers to the same set of attributes as the phrase “the logically contingent attributes of X” (for any X, where X specifies a particular being or a category of beings).

The “OR” here is EXCLUSIVE.  If CASE I holds, then CASE II does not hold.  If CASE II holds, then CASE I does not hold.

 

THINKING ABOUT CASE I

Let’s think about CASE I for minute.  If the phrase “the potential attributes of X” refers to the same set of attributes as the phrase “the logically contingent attributes of X”, then I don’t think I have any objection to Feser’s characterization of CHANGE in terms of a potential attribute of something becoming an actual attribute of that thing.

This characterization would, however, be trivial, obvious, and uninformative, because it just means that a CHANGE must start with a logically possible state of affairs and end up with a different logically possible state of affairs.  It is obvious and self-evident and trivial that a CHANGE cannot begin from a logically IMPOSSIBLE state of affairs, and it is obvious and trivial that a CHANGE cannot end up with a logically IMPOSSIBLE state of affairs.  But Feser seems to think that there is some significant, non-obvious, non-trivial truth in his characterization of the nature of CHANGE, so it seems to me that CASE I does not fit with Feser’s understanding of his characterization of CHANGE.

Furthermore,  when Feser asserts that hot coffee can CHANGE to cold coffee on the grounds that coldness is a potential attribute of coffee, he seems to be saying something MORE than just that it is logically possible for coffee to have the attribute of being cold.  He seems to be implying that there is something in the nature of coffee that makes it the sort of thing that can be cold.  This is more like the concept of physical possibility than the concept of logical possibility.

It is physically possible for coffee to be cold, and this physical possibility is more than mere logical possibility.  It is not physically possible for a man to walk on water, but it is logically possible for a man to walk on water.  Thus, the claim that it is physically possible to for X to do Y asserts MORE than the claim that it is logically possible for X to do Y.  Similarly, it seems that when Feser claims that “A is a potential attribute of X”  (e.g. “Coldness is a potential attribute of coffee”), he is asserting something MORE than just that the statement “A has attribute X”  (e.g. “This coffee is cold”) is a logically possible statement.

Therefore,  it seems to me that CASE I FAILS to provide an accurate characterization of the relationship between Feser’s concept of a potential attribute, and the concept of a logically contingent attribute.

 

ANALYSIS OF CASE II SCENARIOS

CASE II is a bit more complicated, because it encompasses three different scenarios, each of which needs to be considered and evaluated:

IIA.  At least one potential attribute of X is NOT a logically contingent attribute of X (AND it is NOT the case that at least one logically contingent attribute of X is NOT a potential attribute of X).

OR

IIB. At least one logically contingent attribute of X is NOT a potential attribute of X (AND it is NOT the case that at least one potential attribute of X is NOT a logically contingent attribute of X).

OR

IIIC. At least one potential attribute of X is NOT a logically contingent attribute of X, AND at least one logically contingent attribute of X is NOT a potential attribute of X.

The “OR” here is EXCLUSIVE.  If  Case IIA holds, then Case IIB and Case IIC do not.  If Case IIB holds, then Case IIA and Case IIC do not.  If Case IIC holds, then Case IIA and Case IIB do not.

 

CASE IIA

IIA.  At least one potential attribute of X is NOT a logically contingent attribute of X (AND it is NOT the case that at least one logically contingent attribute of X is NOT a potential attribute of X).

If there is a potential attribute of X that is NOT a logically contingent attribute of X, then either there is a potential attribute of X that is such that X cannot possibly have that attribute, or there is a potential attribute of X that is a logically necessary attribute of X.  Let’s consider the first alternative:

There is a potential attribute of X that is such that it is NOT logically possible for X to have that attribute.

This makes no sense in relation to the concept of a CHANGE.  For example, it is not logically possible for a triangle to have four sides.  To say that “having four sides” is a potential attribute of a triangle would be very misleading, to say the least.  Furthermore, since it is logically impossible for a triangle to have four sides, it is logically impossible for a triangle to ACTUALLY become four sided.  This is a “potential” that there is no possibility of ever being actualized.  It makes no sense to talk about CHANGE in terms of a “potential” that it is logically impossible to realize.

Let’s consider the second alternative:

There is a potential attribute of X that is a logically necessary attribute of X.

This also makes no sense in relation to the concept of a CHANGE.  For example, having three sides is a logically necessary attribute of a triangle, so a all triangles must always have three sides.  This means that it can never be the case that a triangle BECOMES three-sided.  In order to BECOME three-sided, something must start out not being three-sided.  So, it would be very misleading to say that having three sides is a “potential” attribute of a triangle, at the very least.  Furthermore, since all triangles must always have three sides, it is not logically possible for a triangle to BECOME three-sided, so it is not logically possible for the attribute of having three sides to be actualized for a triangle.  Any existing triangle will already have three sides.

CASE IIA FAILS to provide us with a concept of a “potential attribute of X” that can be used to reasonably analyze the concept of CHANGE as the actualization of a potential attribute.

 

CASE IIB

IIB. At least one logically contingent attribute of X is NOT a potential attribute of X (AND it is NOT the case that at least one potential attribute of X is NOT a logically contingent attribute of X).

In this case, there is a logical possibility that X lacks an attribute at one point in time and has that attribute at a later point in time, but this would be considered to be a case in which there was no CHANGE to X, because the attribute in question was not a “potential attribute” of X.

If X lacks an attribute at one point in time and has that attribute at a later point in time, then X has CHANGED.  It makes no difference whether obtaining that attribute was natural, or normal, or in keeping with the nature of X.  Even if that attribute is unnatural, or unusual, or abnormal for X, if X goes from lacking that attribute to having that attribute, then X has CHANGED.

This is similar to the distinction between logical possibility and physical possibility, and to the claim that the concept of CHANGE is restricted to physically possible events.  It is physically impossible to swim across the Atlantic ocean in one minute, but logically possible to do so.  If someone were to swim across the Atlantic ocean in one minute, then the location of that person has CHANGED, whether or not this event was physically possible.  The concept of CHANGE is NOT constrained by the limits of physical possibility; it is only constrained by the limits of logical possibility.  Similarly, the concept of CHANGE is NOT constrained by the limits of “potential attributes of X” if this is something narrower than the constraint of logical possibility (or “logically contingent attributes of X”).

CASE IIB FAILS to provide us with a concept of a “potential attribute of X” that can be used to reasonably analyze the concept of CHANGE as the actualization of a potential attribute.

 

CASE IIC

This third case has the problems of both CASE IIA and of CASE IIB.

CASE IIC FAILS to provide us with a concept of a “potential attribute of X” that can be used to reasonably analyze the concept of CHANGE as the actualization of a potential attribute.

 

CONCLUSION

The assumption that the phrase “the potential attributes of X” has the same referents as the phrase “the logically contingent attributes of X” makes Feser’s theory of CHANGE obvious and trivial, and it  FAILS to accurately interpret what Feser means by “potential attributes”.  So, CASE I  FAILS as an interpretation of a key concept in Feser’s metaphysical theory of CHANGE.

However, CASE II scenarios ALL FAIL to provide a concept of “the potential attributes of X” that can be used to reasonably analyze the concept of CHANGE.

Therefore, either Feser’s theory of CHANGE is obvious and trivial, or the key concept of “the potential attributes of X” makes it so that Feser FAILS to provide a reasonable analysis of the concept of CHANGE as the actualization of a potential attribute.

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