Feser’s Case for God – Part 6: Ambiguity and Unclarity

LACK OF SPECIFICATION IN PREMISE (2)

The more I examine Chunk #1 of Feser’s Aristotelian argument for God, in Chapter 1 of Five Proofs of the Existence of God (hereafter: FPEG), the more ambiguous and unclear this part of the argument seems to be.

The problems begin with premise (2):

2. But change is the actualization of a potential.   (FPEG, Location 477 )

I initially interpreted premise (2) as asserting this more specific universal generalization:

2a.  ALL LOGICALLY POSSIBLE changes are instances of the actualization of a potential ATTRIBUTE of a SUBSTANCE.

One commenter who has closely followed this series of posts, and who appears to be familiar with Feser’s case for God, objects that Feser does not intend to discuss ALL LOGICALLY POSSIBLE changes here, and, in any case, that Feser’s argument works just fine if we reduce the scope of changes under consideration to something like ALL PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE changes, or ALL NATURAL CHANGES.  One might also reasonably consider reducing the quantifier from ALL to SOME (i.e. AT LEAST ONE).

So (2a), unlike (2), specifies a quantifier: “ALL”, and (2a), unlike (2), specifies the scope of changes under discussion: “LOGICALLY POSSIBLE”, and (2a), unlike (2), specifies the type of thing that can be potential:  an “ATTRIBUTE”, and (2a), unlike (2) specifies the type of thing that can have a potential: a “SUBSTANCE”.

While I don’t claim that (2a) is the correct or best interpretation of (2), it seems to me that (2a) is much more clear, and much less ambiguous than premise (2).  In fact, it seems to me that (2) is so unclear and so ambiguous that it is not possible to rationally evaluate whether premise (2) is TRUE or FALSE, but I am much more optimistic about rational evaluation of (2a).

 

DIFFERENT INTERPRETATIONS OF (2) HAVE DIFFERENT IMPACTS

Furthermore, in terms of evaluating Chunk #1 of Feser’s Aristotelian argument,  it makes a significant difference what we decide the intended quantifier is, and what we decide the intended scope of changes under discussion is, and what type of thing (or types of things) can be a potential, and what type of thing (or types of things) can have a potential.

Let’s consider some different possible interpretations of premise (2) and note how the different clarifications of this premise impact the soundness or validity or cogency of the first inference in Chunk #1.

 

ORIGINAL WORDING:

1. Change is a real feature of the world.

2. But change is the actualization of a potential.

3. So, the actualization of potential is a real feature of the world.  (FPEG, Location 477 )

VERSION I:

1a. At least one logically possible change has actually occurred.

2a. All logically possible changes that actually occur are instances of the actualization of a potential.

THEREFORE:

3a. At least one instance of the actualization of a potential has actually occurred.

This version appears to be logically VALID.  However, premise (2a) makes a very strong claim, and I have serious doubts about the truth of (2a), so this version might well be UNSOUND.  Furthermore, (2a) does not appear to be a reasonable interpretation of Feser, given other things that Feser has to say about the actualization of a potential.

VERSION II:

1a. At least one logically possible change has actually occurred.

2b. At least one logically possible change would be an instance of the actualization of a potential (if such a change were to actually occur).

THEREFORE:

3a. At least one instance of the actualization of a potential has actually occurred.

This version is clearly INVALID.  It has the same invalid logical form as this argument:

Some People are Tall people.

Some People are Short people.

THEREFORE:

Some Short people are Tall people.

VERSION III:

1a. At least one logically possible change has actually occurred.

2c. At least one logically possible change that has actually occurred is an instance of the actualization of a potential.

THEREFORE:

3a. At least one instance of the actualization of a potential has actually occurred.

Although this argument is logically VALID,  (2c) logically implies (3a) all by itself, because (2c) assumes or presupposes the truth of (1a), it is not a cogent argument.   Because (2c) implies (3a) all by itself, this appears to be a QUESTION BEGGING argument.  If one doubts (3a), then one will also doubt (2c), so it is inappropriate to use (2c) as the basis for establishing the truth of (3a).

VERSION IV:

1a. At least one logically possible change has actually occurred.

2d. All actual changes are instances of the actualization of a potential.

THEREFORE:

3a. At least one instance of the actualization of a potential has actually occurred.

Although this version is not formally valid, it does appear to be deductively valid, because (1a) implies that there has been at least one actual change, and in combination with (2d) that logically implies (3a).   However, (2d) is presumably known either by means of inductive reasoning from experienced examples of actual changes (and is thus an empirical generalization), or by means of analysis of concepts to confirm that (2d) as an analytic truth.

In order to know (2d) by induction from examples, we must first determine that at least one actual change was an instance of the actualization of a potential, but then that would require knowing (3a) to be true, so if (2d) is known by means of induction from experienced examples, then we must FIRST determine whether (3a) is true, in order to establish that (2d) is true, but then we would be reasoning in a circle to infer (3a) from (2d).

On the other hand, if we know (2d) on the basis of the analysis of concepts, independent from experience, then we cannot eliminate any logically possible changes from the scope of the phrase “actual changes”.  So, in order to determine that (2d) is an analytic truth, we need to first determine whether ALL LOGICALLY POSSIBLE CHANGES that actually occur must be instances of the actualization of a potential.  But that brings us back to VERSION I of the argument, and to the problem that (2a) is a very strong claim that appears to be highly dubious.

VERSION V:

1b. At least one physically possible change has actually occurred.

2e. All physically possible changes that actually occur are instances of the actualization of a potential.

THEREFORE:

3a. At least one instance of the actualization of a potential has actually occurred.

Again, we either know (2e) to be an empirical truth on the basis of induction from experience, or we know it to be an analytic truth on the basis of conceptual analysis.  In order to know (2e) to be true on the basis of induction from experience, we would need to first determine that one example of an actual change was an instance of the actualization of a potential, but that means that we would have to determine whether (3a) was true as an initial step towards evaluation of the truth of (2e).  So, if we turn around and later use (2e) as support for (3a), we would be reasoning in a circle.

Could we determine (2e) to be true by means of a conceptual analysis of this claim in order to show it to be an analytic truth?  Perhaps, we could.  Perhaps the concept of a “physically possible change” is best understood and best explained by reference to the idea that things have natural tendencies to change in specific ways in specific circumstances, and that the concepts of “potential” and “actualized” play key roles in such an analysis of the concept of a “physically possible change”.

Unfortunately,  I don’t think that Version V is what Feser had in mind in Chunk #1 of his Aristotelian argument.  In any case, Feser does not argue for a logical or conceptual tie between “physically possible changes” and “the actualization of a potential”, so although I think that Version V is more interesting than the other versions previously mentioned, I don’t think it reflects Feser’s thinking.

 

CLOSING REMARKS

There is a great deal of ambiguity and unclarity in premise (2) of Feser’s Aristotelian argument, which makes it difficult, if not impossible to rationally evaluate that premise.  Part of the unclarity results from a lack of specificity concerning the SCOPE of changes under discussion, and the QUANTIFICATION of claims about changes.  Different interpretations/versions of the initial inference of Chunk #1 of Feser’s Aristotelian argument show that there are different problems with the argument depending on which version/interpretation one adopts.

Furthermore, I have not said much about the problem of unclarity in relation to the type of thing(s) that could BE a potential, and the type of thing(s) that could HAVE a potential.  It makes a difference whether we are talking about potential attributes or potential substances or potential events or potential processes or ALL of these different sorts of potentials, or some combination of these different types of potentials.  It also makes a difference whether we are talking about substances having potentials or events having potentials or other types of things having potentials, or some combination of these different types of things having potentials. None of this is clearly specified by Feser.

Finally, Feser does not, at least not in Chapter 1, define what the phrase “a potential” means, nor does he define the phrase “actualizing a potential”, nor does he define the terms “substance” or “attribute”, which seem to be used or implied in his discussion of examples of the actualization of a potential.

At this point, I don’t see a way to rationally evaluate premise (2).  It stands in need of further specification and clarification.  I will probably move on to examine the rest of Chunk #1, leaving premise (2) as a claim that I cannot, at this point, evaluate as either true or false.  Perhaps, seeing what use Feser makes of premise (2) will help to clarify the meaning of this premise, and make it possible to rationally evaluate it later.

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