Act and Potential
TLS is not a complete work of theology or philosophy, nor is it intended to be. The answers to All Questions are not found in its pages. Every distinction with a difference is not parsed, every depth is not plumbed. Feser did not, and did not intend to, build a complete theory of anything; he provided just enough material to show his central argument was true and then signed off.
Nor is this a book of religion. You won’t discover why Catholicism is to be preferred to Methodism. There is no discourse on the valuable insights on the nature of God given to us by Buddhists and Muslims. The festival of Obon never makes an appearance. There isn’t the slightest attempt to proselytize. Thus any rebuttal focusing on some Christian in history who has acted badly, or information on another who has acted saintly, is irrelevant.1 The first person to wield these themes in an effort to dispatch Feser has admitted losing the argument.
The argument is this: that there is no dispute between science and classical metaphysics, that you cannot have science without this philosophy, that it is possible to come to a knowledge of God purely through reason and here are some irrefutable arguments, that the universe is not a giant machine nor are the things in it (including us) small machines, that the charges of “wishful thinking”, “rank ignorance”, “pastafarianism”, “believers are stupid (and I’m smart!)” flung about by New Atheists are not just false, not just the opposite of the truth, but self-rebounding.
And so to work.
Realism is the “view that universals, numbers and/or propositions exist objectively, apart from the human mind and distinct from any material or physical features of the world.” Plato’s Theory of Forms is one such view, though not the only, nor the best. For that we turn to Aristotle—“The Philosopher,” as he was known to the Schoolmen—as so many have in the past, and as an increasing number are today, after a long period of shocking neglect.
On the historical slight ushered in by Bacon and others, Feser says, “Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought” (emphasis original).
Just what have we left behind? Much.
Feser is fond of rubber balls: he is forever bouncing or abusing one. In TLS his ball is blue, in Aquinas he changes it to red. This is useful in itself, because it is obvious that a blue rubber ball is potentially a red one because, of course, a blue one could be painted or dyed red. A blue ball is just as obviously actually blue.
In this simple example are two concepts central to understanding Aristotle’s metaphysics: actuality and potentiality. The actual rubber ball may potentially be a gooey mess, but it is not this potential to be gooey which causes the ball to melt; something external (like heat) to the potential must act on the ball and turn the potential into a new actuality. Act turns potential to actuality.
From these observations is derived Aristotle’s dictum that whatever is moved is moved by another, which in modern phraseology is better put as whatever is changed is changed by another, a slicker way to say that a potential cannot act. A potential has to be a potential for something actual, too; only something actual can be something else potentially. There cannot be a thing which is purely potential and is nothing actually. But there can be things which are actual and which have potentialities. And it even so that there is a thing which is purely actual with no potentiality.
Other examples, more well known: a statue is potentially in a block of marble, but it takes the act of a sculptor to bring it out. A block of wood is potentially a table, but it takes the act of a carpenter to make it so. But I think it wise Feser did not emphasize these old saws because they too quickly bring to mind the idea of a designing intelligence which is rarely needed, especially in the case of rubber balls. Too see this: a blue rubber ball dropped from a soaring aeroplane at 10,000 feet is potentially at 0 feet, but it is not the potentially 0 feet which acts on the ball, it is something external.
What else can the ball potentially be? Well, it can’t be a walrus. For one thing, there isn’t enough mass or energy in a blue rubber ball that can, through the physical means known to us, be changed into a walrus. We can of course imagine the ball morphing into a living, two-ton tusked beat, say via a magical spell, but then we have left reality for the world of fantasy. It is also not that something cannot be added to the ball, like in the case of red paint turning a blue ball red, but that there is no way even adding the right amount of mass or energy the ball can change.
So far there is nothing controversial, very little which could act on your potential belief in God and make it into an actual belief in God. But that’s coming.
Note I am sorry for the brevity of this installment, which probably has more than its usual share of typos. But I am traveling and staying in a motel which has lost its internet connection, and so I’m finishing this post on my portable radiophone. My cell abuts the 24-hour laundry room and so I’m also operating on less sleep.
1Note: all comments about Feser’s tone or about the personalities of the New Atheists will be removed to Part I of this series. A related dodge—which is always obvious—is to say, “Feser’s arguments stink” and then to leave without saying exactly, precisely, logically why. However, you’re welcome to use this ploy if you think that, just this once, it will work. The comment by “Rob” at the top illustrates this technique.