Feser’s Case for God – Part 8: Actualization of a Potential

Feser’s Case for God – Part 8: Actualization of a Potential January 6, 2018

FESER’S ANALYSIS OF CHANGE

A key idea in Chunk #1 of Feser’s Aristotelian argument is his analysis or understanding of change:

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

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

To understand Feser’s analysis of change, we need to understand the meaning of each of these key phrases.

 

“SOME THING OR SUBSTANCE”

In Part 7 of this series I pointed out that there are at least four different possible meanings of “substance”.  It is unclear whether the word “thing” represents an additional category (that includes non-substances) or is simply a clarification of the word “substance”.

In the ordinary use of the word  “substance” , this word means a KIND of stuff (like water, gold, salt, alcohol, glass, wood, plastic, etc.), as in the phrase “substance abuse”.  But in philosophy, the word “substance” means, roughly, a particular entity or object.  The word “thing” thus might well be a hint pointing to the philosophical use of the word “substance”, as opposed to the ordinary use of the word “substance”.  In that case, “thing” would NOT refer to something in addition to “substance”, but would simply be a rough synonym of “substance” that is an attempt to disambiguate that term and that points towards the philosophical use of the term. The philosophical use of the term “substance”, however, is itself ambiguous between various different concepts, as I pointed out in Part 7.

 

“A POTENTIAL OF”

A hot cup of coffee has the potential to become a cold cup of coffee;  it does not have the potential to become chicken soup or gasoline.  An acorn has the potential to become an oak tree; it does not have the potential to become a pine tree or a tomato plant.   A green banana has the potential to become a yellow banana; it does not have the potential to become a peach.

Having a potential is NOT, in general, a sufficient condition for the realization of that potential.  One can have the potential to become a famous movie star and yet fail to realize this potential.  A green banana could ripen and become a yellow banana, but it could also be incinerated before becoming ripe and thus fail to become a yellow banana.

It also seems that “having the potential to become X” is NOT a necessary condition of becoming X.

One might not “have the potential to become a famous movie star” and yet, by a matter of sheer luck and coincidence, become a movie star.  When we say that someone “has the potential to become a famous movie star” we mean that they have natural talent and natural good looks that would help them to be a very good and very appealing actor.  But sometimes people who are lacking in natural talent and natural good looks still manage to become very good and very appealing actors.  And sometimes people who are NOT very good and NOT very appealing actors still manage to become movie stars.  If I am correct on these points, then someone who does NOT “have the potential to become a famous movie star” might nevertheless become a famous movie star.

Having the potential to become X, thus seems to mean having some sort of natural tendency towards becoming X.  Having a natural tendency to become X is NOT, however, a necessary condition for becoming X.  Something that lacks a natural tendency towards becoming X might, nevertheless, become X.  A boy does not have a natural tendency to become a woman; however, that is not a necessary condition for becoming a woman.  A boy can undergo sex change procedures and over time become a woman.  Such a boy did NOT have “the potential to become a woman”, and yet he actually did become a woman, by means of surgery, hormone therapy, and psychological counseling.

In many cases, the properties of a thing are the result of a combination of its natural tendencies and particular circumstances.   A hot cup of coffee has the potential to become cold, but only if the air or environment near the coffee becomes cold.  Similarly, a cold cup of coffee has the potential to become hot, but only if the air or environment near the coffee becomes hot.  The coffee has the potential to become boiling hot, or freezing cold, or various temperatures between those two extremes, but which of these potential temperatures is realized depends on the temperature of the air or environment near the coffee.

The potential of the coffee to become cold could be stated in terms of the natural tendency of the coffee to become cold in circumstances where the surrounding air or environment was cold.  It would be unnatural for a hot cup of coffee to remain hot if it was left outside on a cold winter’s day.  It would be natural for a hot cup of coffee that was left outside on a cold winter’s day to become a cold cup of coffee after being outside in the cold for half an hour or so.  It would be unnatural for an acorn to develop into a pine tree, or for a green banana to develop into a peach, and it would be natural for an acorn to develop into an oak tree, and for a green banana to ripen and become a yellow banana.

Here is an attempt to capture this understanding of the phrase “a potential of”:

It is a potential of X to become Y

IF AND ONLY IF

(a) X has a natural tendency to become Y under circumstances C 

AND 

(b) circumstances C are ordinary or common circumstances.

A boy has a natural tendency to become a woman, but only under very specific circumstances that are not ordinary or common.  To make this happen there must be deliberate human intervention:  sex change surgery,  hormone therapy, and psychological counseling.  Under ordinary or common circumstances a boy has a natural tendency to develop into a man, into an adult male.

Natural tendencies are typically associated with KINDS of things, as opposed to particular individual objects or entities.  Acorns, coffee, and boys are KINDS of things, and these KINDS of things have natural tendencies.  A particular acorn, cup of coffee, or boy may also have natural tendencies, but these tendencies are usually derived from (are inferred from) the KIND of thing(s) that the particular entity is/are, from the categories to which that object or entity belong.

The phrase “become Y” is intentionally ambiguous.  This phrase can be used of either a change in an accidental attribute or of a change in an essential attribute, i.e. a change from one thing into a different kind of thing.  A cup of coffee can change from being hot to being cold; it can “become cold”.  Alternatively, a cup of coffee can be changed into a cup of water by separating the water in the coffee from the liquids and particles that turned it into coffee; a cup of coffee can “become a cup of water” under the right circumstances.

 

“THE ACTUALIZATION OF”

The phrase “the actualization of…” must be understood in relation to the phrase “…a potential of”.  The basic idea is that of truth or reality.  Some possibility is described, and then we can talk about “the actualization of…” that possibility, meaning that the described possibility is true or real.  We can describe the possibility of a cup of coffee being cold: “This cup of coffee is cold”.  This description could be FALSE; it could be a possibility that is not yet true or real.   If a cup of coffee is hot, then this possibility is not (at that time) true or real.  If the hot coffee cools down and becomes cold, then the possibility “This cup of coffee is cold” becomes true or real.

But in Feser’s analysis of change, we are NOT dealing with all logical possibilities concerning X; rather, we are focused only on “a potential of X to become Y”.  Since “a potential of X” is something narrower and more specific than all of the logical possibilities concerning X, Feser’s analysis of change limits the scope of events to those in which there is some NATURAL TENDENCY for “X to become Y”.  Only in such cases can there be a change, according to Feser.

 

OBJECTION TO FESER’S ANALYSIS OF CHANGE

Having clarified the meaning of Feser’s analysis of “change”, it seems to me that my original objection to Feser’s analysis of change holds true.   There are changes that are NOT based in a “a potential of X to become Y”.

If a boy becomes a woman, then that is a change, but it is NOT a change based on a potential of that boy to become a woman.  If an ugly and untalented actor becomes a famous movie star, that is a change, but it is NOT a change based on a potential of that actor to become a famous movie star.  Not every change happens in accordance with “a potential for X to become Y”, so Feser’s analysis of change is wrong.

Feser’s analysis of change illogically excludes some logically possible changes by limiting the scope of this concept to events which are based on the realization of a NATURAL TENDENCY in the context of some ORDINARY or COMMON CIRCUMSTANCES.  But some logically possible events and some logically possible changes occur outside of this boundary.

Because Feser’s analysis of change is wrong, a basic premise of Chunk #1 is FALSE:

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

Thus Feser’s first argument for the existence of God is UNSOUND.

Feser could reply to this objection by rejecting my clarification of his analysis of “change”, but to do so with any degree of credibility, he would have to offer an alternative way of understanding his analysis of “change”, and given that he makes no real effort to clarify this fundamental aspect of his thinking in his presentation of his Aristotelian argument for God, I doubt that he is up to this task.  If Feser was clear in his own mind about this basic concept in his argument, then he would have already provided adequate clarification in presenting this first argument of his case for God.

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