Thursday, April 25, 2013

De Ente et Essentia Revisited

De Ente et Essentia, or "On Being and Essence," contains what most Thomists consider to be the definitive proof of God's existence.  There have been numerous formulations of the argument, however, and I myself have treated it differently at times.  Instead of defending the more controversial being and essence distinction, we can also defend the metaphysical argument in terms of actuality and potentiality.  In this way the proof resembles the argument from motion, with the exception that Pure Act is the immediate conclusion, and not a further deduction.

1. No potentiality can actualize itself. (Premise)

2. If there is no Pure Act, then no potentiality can be actualized. (Implied by 1)

3. Potentialities are actualized. (Premise)

4. Therefore, Pure Act exists. (From 2 and 3)

The divine attributes are then inferred from the existence of Pure Act.  Premise (3) is obviously true.  Acorns do have their potentialities actualized during the process of becoming oak trees, and they can only do so by some existing actuality, in confirmation of (1).

(2) is implied by (1), since even if there were an infinite regress of potentialities presumably being actualized by other entities that exemplify both potentiality and actuality, there would simply be an infinite regress of non-actualized potentialities.  It would be as if a watch had infinitely-many gears, but no spring.  Without the spring, none of the infinitely-many gears would have their potentialities actualized.

22 comments:

  1. Argument for Pre-existing Potentiality

    1. All actualization of potentiality requires a previous potentiality (by definition)

    2. A Pure Act contains no potentiality (by definition)

    3. Potentialities are actualized (Premise: observation)

    4. Before the first actualization, there was a potentiality (From 3 and 1.)

    5. Before the first actualization, there must have existed more than Pure Act. (From 4. and 2.)

    Since a spring as potential energy, and gears are purely fixed and actual, I think my argument is much BETTER supported by your illustration than the Thomist argument.

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  2. Thanks, Ian, for your comments. Potentialities are privations of actualities. They only describe what could be. Speaking of an existing potentiality is literally absurd (in the technical sense, and not in a condescending way).

    As with any analogy, the watch is an imperfect one. The point is that infinitely-many potentialities will all fail to be actualized unless there exists something to actualize the entire set.

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    1. If we consider the active power of something for some action, is that an actuality, or a potentiality? Is our power/capacity/ability to lift a stone to be thought of us having or being an actuality, or a potentiality?

      Is potential energy (eg in a spring, or in food) an actuality, or a potentiality?

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  3. Anything that exists is an actuality. When you talk about potential energy, if it's something it already possesses, then it's an actuality. However, that results in an equivocation in the term, "potentiality."

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    1. Your potentiality is like possibility-of-what-could-be.
      My potentiality is like power-to-produce-what-could-be.
      Both are needed.

      What in Thomism is used to describe power-to-produce?
      That 'dunamis' is what Aristotle refers to, and is usually translated 'potentiality'. Aquinas seems to have removed the 'active' part of that concept. Where has he put it? Or is it lost?

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  4. "Power" would probably be a good term.

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  5. By the way, based on your profile it appears you're a fellow theist. Glad to have you playing some devil's advocate. :) You'd probably prefer my defense of Thomas Aquinas's fifth way, since it incorporates the laws of nature and science.

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    1. I am indeed a theist, and I am a physicist by profession. I do not think of myself as a devil's advocate, but the opposite: I seek to make a new set of foundation ideas with which we can understand both physics and theism together.

      To do this, I am again starting from Aristotle (as Aquinas did), but adapting Aristotelean ideas in a rather different way compared with what Aquinas did. In our discussion above, you can see some of the differences. I want to give 'active power' a much more distinctive and ontological significance than Aquinas did. Active power is everywhere: in material things, in minds, in souls, in angels, and (especially) in the power of God. It is obviously very important, and should never be forgotten.

      I distinguish active power from actual structure. Actual structure is what is now, and active power is the disposition to make the future happen. Aristotle groups these both under 'form', and Aquinas under 'actuality' (as you showed). But I think that the distinction of active-power to actual-structure SHOULD coincide with the actual-to-potential distinction. That is different from Aquinas! And pulls Aristotle a bit.

      That is, I am reworking the basic physics and philosophy that underlies all basic discussion of objects and substances. And in such a way that they can be applicable to physical, mental & all kinds of beings.

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    2. Ian, are you familiar with the scholastic distinction between active and passive potency? In reference to your prior questions to Doug: 'power to produce' just is active potency, which is defined as 'the principle of change or of acting upon another inasmuch as it is another being; a power; the capacity to do or make; a principle of action' (from Wuellner's dictionary of Scholastic philosophy). Passive potency, on the other hand, is the principle that _receives_ change. This would correspond with potential energy and other like terms, and potency as such. Active potency is an act of actual beings.

      The distinction is a common one in Thomistic and scholastic thought. See David S. Oderberg's book 'Real essentialism' for contemporary commentary on the distinction, from a Thomist perspective, and the way it differs from contemporary philosophical perspectives on causal powers and dispositions.

      As to your distinction between power and structure: that is just the distinction between the virtual and the formal properties of a thing. Again, this is accounted for in the framework of traditional Thomism.

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  6. I'm not sure what the objection is, then, other than terminology. Couldn't the argument just be revised with new terms and still arrive at the same conclusion?

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    1. Your conclusions still hold, along with the Five Ways. That is not the problem.

      The issue is that every actual thing that you point to contains both structural forms and active powers in a manner which Thomism does not discriminate, or even describe properly. (This is the case for physical objects, as well for the Pure Act which is God.)

      By hiding active powers away under the category of 'form', Thomists not only confuse newcomers (nothing new there!), but also fail to investigate powers yourselves. You also are led to strange ideas about mind and angels, forgetting that even your own meaning of 'form' includes active powers.

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  7. I don't think we make the mistake of hiding away active powers. After all, Thomas states that entities that exhibit both actuality and potentiality are able to cause things insofar as their actuality allows. Nevertheless, I agree with you that Thomists often don't describe things very well. I very rarely use the term, "form," for the example.

    With respect to minds and angels, I'm pretty open to those issues. Whether angels are "fully actualized potentiality" and composed of "subtle matter" isn't very important to me. Likewise, whether the mind is best described by hylomorphism or Cartesian dualism isn't something I lose sleep over.

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  8. There are several problems with this argument, but the worst one is that (2) is not implied by (1).
    Even if we somehow belive that the distinction between actuality and potentiality has any sort of ontological significnance, the only thing that follows from (1) is that everything that is actualized must contain act. But that in itself does not entail that there is such a thing as Pure Act, because , it may very well be the case that every existing thing has act as well as potency, and that all existing things are continuously actualizing there potency.
    This would also avoid the huge problem in the fcat that Pure Act on its own cannot account for any potentiality.

    Walter

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    1. Walter: I agree with what you think you are saying! However, you are have been tripped by the 'scholastic' meanings of words used in Thomism, and hence you are not using words in the same way as Doug! From the discussion above, you can see for yourself the following meanings:

      When Doug refers 'potentiality', he does not refer to the potentiality of an object. Rather, they only describe what could be (see above). They only refer to 'pure potency' or 'possibility'.

      This means that objects cannot themselves have potentialities, since anything or any properties which actually exists must be actual. Even 'potential energy' is actual (see above).

      Hence, for you to talk of 'their potencies' is illogical to Thomists (however logical it may be to everyone else!). For this, to Thomists, is translated as 'actual possibility', which is clearly a contradiction in terms.

      This has the further consequence, as you already know, that while Pure Act may not have any 'pure potency' (Thomist 'potentiality'), it may still be and have lots of active power and potential (everyone else's 'potentiality').

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    2. Ian, thanks for the reply. I hadn't noticed you replied to me, so I apologize for the late reaction.
      As a matter of fact I do know what Thomists mean by potentiality, so when I say that (2) isn't implied by (1) I mean that this argument on its own does not entail that 'no potentiality can be actualized if there is no pure act'. What it does entail is that, all existing things must have act, which seems quite tautological to me. And since act can have 'lots of active power', every existing thing can in fact change.
      Mind, I am not saying that there are no other Thomistic arguments against this, all I am saying is that Doug's argument, as it is now, does not rule this out and if he wants to avoid this possibility, he must modify his argument.

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  9. Walter, do you know why I say (2) is implied by (1)? I explain it in the post.

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    1. I know why you say it, but your explanation does not work, as I have explained in my post.

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    2. Then our portion of the debate is over.

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  10. Are we continuing our discussion?

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  11. Ian, yes. I apologize for the wait. Comments aren't published until I approve them. I haven't been in the best health lately, so I've been taking some extended breaks here and there.

    Just so you know, Walter and I have been through these discussions for roughly seven years or so. You're obviously welcome to engage him on these matters, but I don't have any expectations that he and I will advance our portion of the debate any time soon.

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  12. Actually we have been through these discussions since May 2007, which is a little less than six years.

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    1. You're right. I completely abandon my argument. ;)

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