Feser’s Case for God – Part 4: Coffee with Parmenides
THE ARGUMENT FOR PREMISE (3)
In his book Five Proofs of the Existence of God (hereafter: FPEG), Edward Feser presents an Aristotelian argument for God in Chapter 1. In Part 2 of this series I divided that argument into seven chunks. Chunk #1 consists of premises (1) through (14). The first sub-argument in Chunk #1 goes like this:
- Change is a real feature of the world.
- But change is the actualization of a potential.
- So, the actualization of potential is a real feature of the world.
I am very skeptical and suspicious about premise (2), because acceptance of this premise seems to involve acceptance of a dubious metaphysical theory, or a significant portion of a dubious metaphysical theory.
In Part 3 of this series, I objected that (2) seems to be false, because the following alternative to (2) seems to be true:
2a. But change is when a logically possible state of affairs that was not an actual state of affairs becomes an actual state of affairs.
If there are (or could be) changes that are logically possible but that are physically impossible or beyond the natural “potential” of a thing, then (2a) would be TRUE, and (2) would be FALSE. Premise (2) implies that there is no such thing as a change which is logically possible but that is beyond the natural “potential” of the thing that undergoes the change. This would either mean that miracles cannot happen, or that miracles do not constitute changes.
COFFEE WITH PARMENIDES
Premise (2) imports an Aristotelian metaphysical theory (a theory about the nature of changes) into the argument. One motivation for adopting this theory is that it provides, according to Feser, a powerful reply to Parmenides’ argument against the possibility of change.
Here is how Feser describes an argument by Parmenides:
Consider once again your coffee, which starts out hot and after sitting on the desk for a while grows cold. You might say that the coldness of the coffee, which does not exist while the coffee is hot, comes into existence . But now we have a problem, says Parmenides. For if the coldness of the coffee was initially nonexistent, then at that point it was nothing; and when it later comes into existence, it is then something. But something can’t come from nothing. So, the coldness of the coffee cannot come into existence, and thus, the coffee cannot grow cold. Something similar could be said for any purported case of change–all of them would have to involve something coming from nothing, which is impossible. Hence, concludes Parmenides, change cannot ever really occur. (FPEG, Location 167)
Feser believes that Aristotle’s metaphysical theory about the nature of change provides a powerful reply to Parmenides:
There is another problem with Parmenides’ argument. As the later Greek philosopher Aristotle pointed out, it is a mistake to think that change would have to involve something coming from nothing. Go back to the coffee. It is true that while the coffee is hot, the coldness is not actually present. Still, it is there potentially in a way other qualities are not. The coffee does not, after all, have the potential to fuel a gasoline engine, or to turn itself into chicken soup, or for that matter to morph into a live chicken and begin squawking. But it does have the potential to grow cold, and it has various other potentials too… . That it has the potential to become cold while lacking certain other potentials shows that the coldness is not exactly nothing, even if it is not yet actual either. (FPEG, Location 175)
But we do NOT need Aristotle’s metaphysical theory of change to have a powerful reply to Parmenides argument (as represented by Feser above). All we need is a little bit of common sense. Let’s have coffee with Parmenides and see if we can straighten him out.
BRADLEY: Care for some coffee?
PARMENIDES: Sure, here is my coffee mug.
BRADLEY: I see that your mug is empty. I am now going to pour some hot coffee from this pitcher into your mug.
PARMENIDES: Thank you. I’m a bit hung over from the party last night, so coffee will help me to think more clearly about metaphysics and the nature of reality.
BRADLEY: OK. Great. Your mug is now full of hot coffee. That is clearly a CHANGE. Your mug was empty just a few seconds ago, and now it is full of hot coffee!
PARMENIDES: Hold on! The mug is now full of coffee. According to you it was empty only seconds ago. That means that the fullness of the mug came into existence. But then the fullness of the mug was initially non-existent, and at that point the fullness was NOTHING, and then when the fullness came into existence, it was SOMETHING. But something can’t come from nothing. So, the fullness of the mug cannot come into existence, and thus, the mug cannot become full. It must either have always been full, or else it must always remain empty.
BRADLEY: I don’t agree. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that your basic assumption is correct and that is is impossible for something to come from nothing. Your mug being full does involve something; it involves there being something in the mug, namely coffee. That coffee is something, and based on your assumption, that coffee could NOT come from nothing. However, the coffee did NOT come from nothing, it came from a pitcher that was full of coffee. The coffee already existed, it just was in a different location. When I poured the coffee into your mug, some coffee was transferred from the pitcher to the mug. Therefore, your mug is full because it has coffee in it, and that coffee came from the pitcher; the coffee did NOT come from nothing.
PARMENIDES: Perhaps you have a point. Let me take a sip or two of this coffee and think on this for a while. Hmmm. This coffee is a little bitter.
BRADLEY: Here, let me put some sugar in your coffee.
[BRADLEY takes a spoonful of sugar from a sugar bowl, puts the sugar into Parmenides’ coffee, and stirs the coffee for a few seconds.]
PARMENIDES: Thank you. The coffee is tastes much better now.
BRADLEY: Right. Just a few seconds ago your coffee had no sweetness, and now it has a bit of sweetness to it. That is a CHANGE. Your coffee has become slightly sweet.
PARMENIDES: Not so fast! The coffee is now sweet. According to you it was NOT sweet only seconds ago. That means that the sweetness of the coffee came into existence. But then the sweetness of the coffee was initially non-existent, and at that point the sweetness was NOTHING, and then when the sweetness (allegedly) came into existence, it was SOMETHING. But something can’t come from nothing. So, the sweetness of the coffee cannot come into existence, and thus, the coffee cannot become sweet. It must either have always been sweet, or else it must always remain without sweetness.
BRADLEY: Once again, I disagree with your analysis. Your coffee being sweet does involve something; it involves there being something in the coffee, namely sugar. That sugar is something, and based on your assumption (that something cannot come from nothing), that sugar could NOT come from nothing. However, the sugar did NOT come from nothing, it came from a sugar bowl that was full of sugar. The sugar already existed, it just was in a different location. When I put a spoonful of the sugar into your coffee, some sugar was transferred from the sugar bowl to the coffee in your mug. Therefore, your coffee is sweet because it has sugar in it, and that sugar came from the sugar bowl; the sugar (and the sweetness) in your coffee did NOT come from nothing.
Note that BRADLEY’s replies to PARMENIDES did not require an appeal to Aristotle’s metaphysical theory of change, the replies only required an appeal to a bit of common sense. The coffee in PARMENIDES’ mug did not come from nothing, it came from the pitcher of coffee. The sugar in PARMENIDES’ coffee did not come from nothing, it came from the sugar bowl.