Feser’s Case for God – Part 7: Feser’s Concept of Change

FOCUS ON CHUNK #1

We are examining the first few premises of Edward Feser’s lengthy (i.e. containing fifty statements) Aristotelian argument for the existence of God, in Chapter 1 of Five Proofs of the Existence of God (hereafter: FPEG).  What I call Chunk #1 of this argument consists of the following premises and inferences:

  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.
  4. No potential can be actualized unless something already actual actualizes it (the principle of causality).
  5. So, any change is caused by something already actual.
  6. The occurrence of any change C presupposes some thing or substance S which changes.
  7. The existence of S at any given moment itself presupposes the concurrent actualization of S’s potential for existence.
  8. So, any substance S has at any moment some actualizer A of its existence.
  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.
  11. But such a regress of concurrent actualizers would constitute a hierarchical causal series, and such a series cannot regress infinitely.
  12. So, either A itself is a purely actual actualizer or there is a purely actual actualizer which terminates the regress that begins with the actualization of A.
  13. So, the occurrence of C and thus the existence of S at any given moment presupposes the existence of a purely actual actualizer.
  14. So, there is a purely actual actualizer. 

(FPEG, Location 477-493, p.35-36)

Let’s focus on premises (1) through (8) for now.   Premises (3), (5), and (8) begin with the word “So”, indicating that these are inferences based on previous premises.  The inferences appear, at least initially, to be logically valid inferences, so the primary question, concerning this first half of Chunk #1 is whether the previous premises are true or false.

Premise (1) is the basic factual claim upon which the argument rests.  This claim seems clearly to be true.  No problem here that I can see.

Premise (2) is vague and unclear, as I have indicated in recent posts (see Part 6Part 5, and Part 3).  This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to rationally evaluate whether (2) is true.

Premises (4) and (7) assert general metaphysical principles.  These premises need to be carefully examined and evaluated.  These are likely points where the argument may be weak or fail.

 

FESER’S ANALYSIS OF CHANGE

Premise (6) is interesting because it provides further explication of Feser’s concept of change.  Premise (6), it seems to me, provides clarification of premise (2).  I think that it makes more sense to move premise (6) to an earlier position in the above line of reasoning, and to combine premises (2) and (6) like this:

2. But change is the actualization of a potential.

6. The occurrence of any change C presupposes some thing or substance S which changes.

THEREFORE:

A. The occurrence of any change C presupposes the actualization of a potential of some thing or substance S which changes.

This is NOT a formally valid deductive inference. The problem is that (2) is too vague and unclear as it stands.  However, (6) provides some clarification of (2), and (A) can be understood as a clarification of the meaning of (2), the clarification being provided by (6).

It is difficult, if not impossible, to rationally evaluate (2) because it is vague and unclear. However, if we use (6) as the basis for clarifying the meaning of (2), resulting in a clarified re-statement of (2) as (A), then there may be some hope of rationally evaluating (2), by evaluating the truth or falsehood of (A).

There are three phrases that constitute the key components of Feser’s analysis of change:

the actualization of…
…a potential of…
…some thing or substance

None of these three phrases is an ordinary expression.  The word “substance”, for example, is a philosophical term:

Many of the concepts analysed by philosophers have their origin in ordinary—or at least extra-philosophical— language. Perception, knowledge, causation, and mind would be examples of this. But the concept of substance is essentially a philosophical term of art.   (Substance, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

All three phrases use technical philosophical terms.  But Feser does not define ANY of the technical philosophical terms that appear in his analysis of change.  Although the examples Feser gives are helpful, they are not adequate to provide enough clarification of these technical terms to allow an intelligent non-philosopher to rationally evaluate whether (A) is true or false.

The first half of Chunk #1 thus consists of Feser’s analysis of change, premise (A), PLUS two general metaphysical principles, stated in premises (4) and (7).  If any one of these three claims is false, or is too unclear to evaluate, then Chunk #1 fails, as does Feser’s Aristotelian argument for God.  If all three of these claims are true, then the first half of Chunk #1 might well be sound.

In order to rationally evaluate Feser’s Aristotelian argument for God, one must first rationally evaluate Feser’s analysis of change:

A. The occurrence of any change C presupposes the actualization of a potential of some thing or substance S which changes.

Is (A) true or false?  In order to rationally evaluate (A), one must have a clear understanding of the meaning of each of the three key phrases in that premise:

the actualization of…
…a potential of…
…some thing or substance

Currently, I do not have a clear understanding of the meaning of ANY of these three key phrases, so I cannot rationally evaluate (A) at this time.  But these are concepts that originate with Aristotle, and that were used by (and perhaps tweaked by) Aquinas.  So, expositions of Aristotle’s use of these concepts, and of the use of these concepts by Aquinas might help to clarify the meaning of these three phrases.  Since this argument for God is based on Aristotle’s reasoning, I’m going to focus on Aristotle’s use of the concepts, to see if that provides enough clarification to make it possible to rationally evaluate premise (A).

 

THE AMBIGUITY OF “SOME”

In order to rationally evaluate Feser’s analysis of change, we need to have a clear understanding of what the phrase “…some thing or substance” means.  The word “some” is problematic, especially in arguments for God; it is often ambiguous between two meanings:

exactly one

at least one

Given that some changes involve changes in many things (e.g. the water in a pot becoming hot involves many water molecules increasing their movements), it appears that defining change in terms of “exactly one thing or substance” might exclude some actual changes which involve many things.  So, I think it is reasonable to interpret the phrase “…some thing or substance” as meaning:

at least one thing or substance

But what is a “thing or substance”?  Is a cloud a “thing or substance”?  Is a person a “thing or substance”? Is love a “thing or substance”?  Is  coffee a “thing or substance”?  Is the number three a “thing or substance”?  Is World War II a “thing or substance”?  Is the color red a “thing or substance”?  Is the pain I feel in my right foot a “thing or substance”?  Is gravity a “thing or substance”?  Is an idea a “thing or substance”?  Is a mind a “thing or substance”?  Is an angel a “thing or substance”?  Is time a “thing or substance”?  Is God a “thing or substance”?  Is space a “thing or substance”?

If we cannot answer these and other similar questions, then we don’t yet have a clear understanding of what the words “thing or substance” mean.

 

THE AMBIGUITY OF “SUBSTANCE”

First of all, there is a high-level ambiguity between two basic senses of the word “substance”:

… According to the generic sense, therefore, the substances in a given philosophical system are those things which, according to that system, are the foundational or fundamental entities of reality. Thus, for an atomist, atoms are the substances, for they are the basic things from which everything is constructed. In David Hume’s system, impressions and ideas are the substances, for the same reason. In a slightly different way, Forms are Plato’s substances, for everything derives its existence from Forms. In this sense of ‘substance’ any realist philosophical system acknowledges the existence of substances. …

The second use of the concept is more specific. According to this, substances are a particular kind of basic entity, and some philosophical theories acknowledge them and others do not. On this use, Hume’s impressions and ideas are not substances, even though they are the building blocks of— what constitutes ‘being’ for—his world. According to this usage, it is a live issue whether the fundamental entities are substances or something else, such as events, or properties located at space-times. This conception of substance derives from the intuitive notion of individual thing or object, which contrast mainly with properties and events. The issue is how we are to understand the notion of an object, and whether, in the light of the correct understanding, it remains a basic notion, or one that must be characterized in more fundamental terms. Whether, for example, an object can be thought of as nothing more than a bundle of properties, or a series of events. 

(“Substance”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, from the opening paragraphs of the article, emphasis added).

The word “substance” can refer either to a fundamental constituent of reality, or it can refer to any individual thing or object.  A key philosophical issue connects these two different senses of “substance”:

Are individual things or objects the fundamental constituents of reality, or are individual things and objects phenomena that derive from some more basic aspect of reality (like properties or events)?

Different philosophers have had different understandings of the meaning of the word “substance”.  Locke understood the “substance” of something to be whatever remained when you removed all of the properties from that particular thing.  Descartes thought that the “substance” of something was whatever it is that underlies the properties or accidents of that something.  Kant understood a “substance” to be the aspect of something that stays the same when something undergoes a change.  (See entries on “Substance” in A Dictionary of Philosophy by A.R. Lacey, and A Dictionary of Philosophy by Antony Flew).

Since we are concerned with the meaning of the word “substance” in an Aristotelian argument for God, we can ignore the use and understanding of the word “substance” by Locke, Descartes, and Kant, and focus in on how Aristotle used and understood this word.  But this doesn’t clarify things much, because Aristotle used the word “substance” with a variety of different meanings.

In fact, the different uses of the word “substance” by Lock, Descartes, and Kant can be traced back to Aristotle’s different uses of this word.  Here are three different senses of “substance” in Aristotle, as described by Antony Flew:

Sense 1: S is a substance if S is a subject of predicates, but cannot be predicated in turn of any other subject.

Sense 2: … a substance may be said to be that which has an independent existence.

Sense 3: … a substance is regarded as something which remains the same through change.

Flew mentions a fourth sense of “substance” , but he does not explicitly ascribe it to Aristotle:

Sense 4:  … some philosophers view the substance of a thing as what it really is, as opposed to the way in which it appears.

Lacey, however, indicates that Sense 4 represents one of Aristotle’s main uses of the word “substance”:

Aristotle seems to use ‘substance’ in two main senses… . …in the second sense, it is the FORM or essence which makes a substance in the first sense the thing it is.  Socrates is what he is because the flesh of which he is made has taken on the form of a man and not, say, that of horse.  (“Substance”, A Dictionary of Philosophy)

Lacey also mentions a meaning of the word “substance” that Aristotle discusses and criticizes:

Sense 5:  …what remains when one removes the form or properties of something. 

This is the sense of “substance” that was taken up by John Locke.  According to Lacey,  Aristotle dismissed this idea of “substance”, so it seems unlikely that Aristotle would have used “substance” in Sense 5 in an argument for the existence of God.  But that still leaves us with at least four different possible interpretations of “substance”.

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