bookmark_borderFeser’s Case for God – Part 3: Actualization of Potential

In Five Proofs of the Existence of God (hereafter: FPEG), Edward Feser presents five “proofs” or arguments, each of which was inspired by an historical philosopher (or two).  However,  Feser takes full ownership of these five arguments, so that none of these arguments is put forward as merely an historical presentation or as merely a scholarly interpretation of a specific argument by an historical philosopher:
In my earlier books The Last Superstition and Aquinas, and elsewhere, I approached questions of natural theology…by way of exposition and defense of what Aquinas had to say on the subject. (FPEG, Location 39, p.9-10)
…there is a need for an exposition and defense of all the most important arguments for God’s existence that is neither burdened with complex and often tedious issues of textual exegesis, nor preceded by any detailed metaphysical prolegomenon, but which simply gets straight to the heart of the argument and introduces any needed background metaphysical principles along the way. (FPEG, Location 53, p.10)
…the arguments [in this book] are all certainly inspired by several great thinkers of the past–in particular, by Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Leibniz.  Indeed, I think that the proofs that I defend here capture what is essential to the arguments of those thinkers.  But I am not presenting an interpretation of any text to be found in the writings of any of these thinkers, and I am not claiming that any of these thinkers said or would agree with everything I have to say.  I defend an Aristotelian proof of God’s existence, but not Aristotle’s own proof, exactly; an Augustinian proof, but not an exegesis of anything Augustine himself actually wrote; and so forth. (FPEG, Location 59, p.11)
The five arguments are thus inspired by historical philosophers, but they are presented as Feser’s arguments, not as Aristotle’s argument, not as Augustine’s argument, not as Aquinas’s argument.  This is one more thing that Feser gets right.  A book that takes on the issue of the existence of God, especially one that provides a case for the existence of God, ought to contain only arguments of which the author takes ownership, and that the author sincerely believes to be good and solid arguments, or at least the best and strongest arguments available.
The first chunk of Feser’s Aristotelian argument attempts to prove the following metaphysical claim:

14. So, there is a purely actual actualizer.  (FPEG, Location 493, p.36)

Although Chunk #1 can be viewed as being unique to the Aristotelian argument (because each argument attempts to prove the existence of a metaphysical being of a different type), Chunk #1 is still very important to how one evaluates ALL FIVE of the arguments presented by Feser.  This is because, the other four arguments are dependent upon the success of the rest of the Aristotelian argument (i.e. premises (15) through (49) ), and the rest of the Aristotelian argument has a dependency on Chunk #1.
The dependency of the rest of the Aristotelian argument on Chunk #1 is NOT a dependency on the TRUTH of premise (14), however.  Rather, it is in Chunk #1 that the concept of “a purely actual actualizer” is developed and clarified, and the rest of the Aristotelian argument is ABOUT the alleged attributes of “a purely actual actualizer”, so any unclarity, confusion, or logical problems with this concept are likely to impact the truth or the logic of the rest of the Aristotelian argument that follows after Chunk #1.
The rest of the Aristotelian argument could be logically valid, even if premise (14) was FALSE.  It could still be the case that IF “a purely actual actualizer” existed, THEN that being would have various key divine attributes (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, being the cause of the existence of all things, etc.).   The point of the rest of the Aristotelian argument is to show that various key divine attributes are logically implied by the concept of “a purely actual actualizer”.  But what this concept logically implies, or does not imply, depends on what this concept MEANS.  So,  the success of the rest of the argument depends on the precise meaning of the phrase “a purely actual actualizer”, and the meaning of this phrase is developed and clarified in Chunk #1.
Therefore, Chunk #1 is NOT merely of significance in terms of our evaluation of the Aristotelian argument, but it is of significance to our evaluation of ALL FIVE of Feser’s arguments for the existence of God.
Here are the premises and inferences that Feser provides in support of claim (14):

  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)
There is a lot going on here in Chunk #1, so it will probably take me a few posts to walk through this part of the Aristotelian argument.
The first sub-conclusion that Feser argues for is this:

3. So, the actualization of potential is a real feature of the world. (FPEG, Location 477, p. 35)

Here is the summary argument for (3):

  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.

I take it that the word “change” is NOT a technical term, but has its ordinary meaning, and thus there is no problem with premise (1); it is clearly and obviously true.
Premise (2) might seem fairly innocent at first blush, but I am deeply suspicious of this premise.  Here Feser is inserting some technical metaphysical concepts or terminology into the argument.  Feser makes no effort to hide this fact, and he provides some examples and clarifications of the terms “the actualization of” and “a potential”, so I’m NOT saying that Feser is trying to mislead anyone.  I’m just saying that we ought to be cautious about accepting premise (2), because it seems to involve acceptance of a philosophical point of view, of a metaphysical theory, or of a significant portion of a metaphysical theory.
Premise (3) clearly follows logically from the combination of (1) and (2), so the logic here is OK.
The only concern I have, so far, is with premise (2).  I doubt that (2) is true, but more importantly,  I do not, at this point, have a clear understanding of what (2) means.  What (2) means is crucial for understanding and evaluating both Chunk #1, and the rest of the Aristotelian argument that follows Chunk #1.  So, we cannot pass Go and collect $200 until we are clear about what premise (2) means.
Here is what Feser has to say in support of premise (2):
…it is a mistake to think that change would have to involve something coming from nothing.  Go back to the coffee [an example of a change given previously by Feser].  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 chicken and begin squawking.  But it does have the potential to grow cold, and it has various other potentials too–to make you more alert if you drink it, to stain the floor if you spill it, and so forth.  That it has the potential to become cold while lacking other potentials shows that the coldness is not exactly nothing, even if it is not yet actual either.  
What change involves, then, is…the actualization of a potential.  The coffee has the potential to become cold, and after sitting out for a while, that potential is made actual.  This is not a case of something coming from nothing…because, again, a potential is not nothing.     (FPEG, Location 167 to 179, p.18)
Based on the above comments about the “actualization of a potential”, we can eliminate the following interpretation of (2):

2aBut change is when a logically possible state of affairs that was not an actual state of affairs becomes an actual state of affairs.

On this interpretation the coffee is hot at time T1, and it is logically possible for the coffee to be cold, but it is not actually the case that the coffee is cold at time T1.  However, if at time T2 the coffee is in fact cold, then a logical possibility that was previously not an actual state of affairs at time T1 has become an actual state of affairs at time T2.
First, let me explain why I think that (2a) is NOT what Feser means by premise (2).  In explaining the claim that the coffee has the potential to become cold, Feser says this:
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 chicken and begin squawking.  (FPEG, Location 167, p.18)
Could some coffee turn “into chicken soup”?  This is NOT a physical possibility.  It would be contrary to the laws of nature for a cup of coffee to turn into chicken soup.  In fact, this would constitute a “miracle” if such an event were brought about by God.  However, as Christians often argue, miracles are logically possible even though they are physically impossible. God, being omnipotent, could change a cup of coffee into a cup of chicken soup.  This would be contrary to the laws of nature, contrary to the laws of chemistry, and thus it is a physically impossible event, but it is NOT a logical impossibility.  There is no logical contradiction involved in the claim that a cup of coffee turned into a cup of chicken soup.
It seems to me that (2a) is TRUE.  But if (2a) is true, then (2) is FALSE.  So, it seems to me that (2) is FALSE.
Feser is clearly asserting that coffee does NOT have the “potential” to become chicken soup, but it is logically possible for coffee to become chicken soup, so having the “potential” to turn into chicken soup requires something MORE than just the logical possibility of turning into chicken soup.  Therefore, when Feser speaks of something having a “potential” this implies MORE than just a logical possibility.   It is logically possible for a cup of coffee to turn into a cup of chicken soup, but given Feser’s conception of a “potential”, a cup of coffee does NOT have the potential to turn into a cup of chicken soup.
This, it seems to me, creates a serious problem for Feser in relation to miracles.  God, being omnipotent, can turn a cup of coffee into a cup of chicken soup (this is clearly analogous to the NT miracle where Jesus allegedly turned water into wine).  This would constitute a miracle, in that such an event would be contrary to the laws of nature and would be brought about by God.  But if we accept (2), then we would be forced to conclude that NO CHANGE OCCURS when God turns the cup of coffee into a cup of chicken soup (or when Jesus turned the water into wine).  The cup of coffee had no “potential” to turn into a cup of chicken soup, so when God turned it into a cup of chicken soup, this would NOT be a case of actualizing “the potential” of the coffee to be chicken soup.  But since this is NOT a case of the potential of the coffee being actualized, it would not be a CHANGE, according to Feser’s concept of change.
But the idea that God performing the miracle of turning a cup of coffee into a cup of chicken soup (or Jesus turning water into wine) would NOT involve a CHANGE is absurd.  So, if we are going to accept the idea that miracles are logically possible, and that miracles like this involve a CHANGE, then we must accept (2a) and reject (2).
I doubt that I’m the first person to make this objection to Feser’s concept of CHANGE, so I’m going to stop here for now, and look to see if Feser addresses this objection somewhere in his book Five Proofs of the Existence of God.  
Before we can confidently conclude that we have a clear understanding of premise (2), we need to understand precisely how the meaning of (2) differs from (2a) and either how both (2) and (2a) could be true, or else WHY Feser believes (2a) to be false.  Once these questions have been answered, we should be in a good position to understand and to explicitly state a correct analysis of the meaning of (2).

bookmark_borderReply to Prof. Feser’s Response, (Part IV)

Ed, I am going to take the liberty of first replying to your response to my answer to your fourth question. I am going to do this because I think that this is where we most significantly clash, that is, where our fundamental disagreements are most apparent. I want to address these points right away, and the others I will take up after the 15th when I will be back at my office.
Sorry if I was unclear and gave a misleading impression. I do, in fact, think that the laws of nature are best conceived in terms of the powers and liabilities of the entities and systems of entities that make up the natural world. That is, natural regularities are ultimately explicable in terms of the dispositional properties—the powers and the liabilities—of physical things. The most fundamental laws are the active and passive potentialities of the most fundamental physical things—whatever those are. If and when science reaches explanatory “rock bottom,” it will be in terms of some set of simple entities, i.e. some set of entities which, since they have no constituents, will be nothing other than a set of irreducible properties in virtue of which those entities possess their capacities to act or be acted upon. Along with Harré, Madden, Bhaskar, and Cartwright, I “…take the Laws of Nature to be about the powers, dispositions, or tendencies of natural systems to bring about observable phenomena (Harré, ‘Laws of Nature,’ A Companion to the Philosophy of Science, ed. by W.H. Newton-Smith, p. 218).”
In short, I think you and I agree that explanatory hierarchies will come to an end (if they do come to an end) with an uncaused cause—something that has no causal antecedents and is the original, fundamental, or primordial reality that possesses a set of distinctive properties which constitute the ultimate terms of every explanatory regress. I see no reason why that ultimate reality cannot be the original, fundamental, or primordial—and brutally factual—physical reality. Where is the incoherence? A brute fact would be a state of affairs that just is, with no cause or explanation of its existence or nature. There seems to be nothing about the idea of a brute fact per se that entails a logical contradiction.
You argue—quite correctly—that just because something is conceivable does not mean that it is realizable. You can conceive of impossible objects, and even illustrate them as in M.C. Escher drawings, but that does not mean that such objects are realizable in three-dimensional reality. But where is the incoherence or impossibility of the realization of a brute fact? What, if not logical inconsistency, would make brute facts unrealizable? Your answer is that a version of the PSR must be true. I quote your argument at length:

“Consider that whenever we accept a claim as rationally justified, we suppose not only that we have a reason for accepting it (in the sense of a rational justification), but also that our having this reason is the reason why we accept it (in the sense of being the cause or explanation of our accepting it). We suppose that our cognitive faculties track truth and standards of rational argumentation, and that it is because they do that we believe the things we do. But if PSR is false, then we can have no justification for supposing that any of this is really the case. We may in fact believe what we do for no reason whatsoever, and yet it might also falsely seem, again for no reason whatsoever, that we believe things for reasons. And our cognitive faculties may have the deliverances they do for no reason whatsoever — rather than because they track objective truth and standards of logic — and yet it might also falsely seem, for no reason whatsoever, that they do track the latter.
In short, either everything has an explanation or we can have no justification for thinking that anything does. No purported middle ground position, on which some things have genuine explanations while others are “brute facts,” can coherently be made out. If there really could be unintelligible “brute facts,” then even the things we think are not brute facts may in fact be brute facts, and the fact that it falsely seems otherwise to us may itself be yet another brute fact. We could have no reason to believe anything. Rejecting PSR entails the most radical skepticism — including skepticism about any reasoning that could make this skepticism itself intelligible. Again, the view simply cannot coherently be made out.”

For you brute facts are like Descartes’s evil genius. If we admit to such a possibility, it could show up anywhere, making us think that we have knowledge when we are really dead wrong. My first response will be a tu quoque: Affirming the PSR provides no protection at all against universal skepticism. It is one thing to think that things have sufficient reasons; it is something else entirely to say that we are in the epistemological position to discover them. We might go wrong every time we think that we have found the sufficient reason for anything. In Med. III Descartes famously attempted—using nothing but his own ideas and the PSR (or a principle very close to it)—to prove that a good God exists who will not allow us to be constantly deceived. By nearly universal philosophical consent, Descartes’s argument failed. So, to anyone who tries to succeed where Descartes failed—i.e. to prove the existence of a good God using only his own ideas and the PSR—I will only say “Lotsa luck!” It seems, then, that once the boogeyman of universal skepticism is set loose, merely affirming the PSR will not put him back in his cage again. Indeed, the very reasons we adduce for accepting the PSR could themselves be wrong (as, I maintain, they in fact are!).
But is it really so that “…either everything has an explanation or we can have no justification for thinking that anything does?” Why do we think that some things have explanations? Not for any a priori reason but just because we find that they do. Ancient astronomers discovered that the explanation of lunar eclipses is that the moon moves into the earth’s shadow. Finding that the moon sometimes moves into the earth’s shadow is simply the discovery of a fact about the world—a fact that explains another fact. When you stop and think about it, the early Pre-Socratic philosophers really went out on a limb to think that you could explain natural things in terms of other natural things. They had no a priori guarantee of success, and prior accounts had invoked gods and magic. Yet no Las Vegas jackpot has paid off as lavishly as that speculative leap. Success breeds confidence, and finding scientific explanations is the biggest success story the human race has to tell.
Could we be wrong about everything? Sure, if by “could” we mean “is a logical possibility”—and, again, the evil genius is not exorcised merely by invoking the PSR. But—and this is the only answer to the bogey of universal skepticism—the logical possibility that I could be wrong is insufficient reason to think that I might actually be wrong. All contemporary epistemologists of whom I am aware are fallibilists, that is, they hold that we can know that P even if possibly not-P. For skepticism to have any bite against a fallibilist epistemology, it must do more than simply indicate that we could be wrong. The skeptic must take on a burden of proof and show not just that mistakes are possible but that they have some significant degree of probability. Likewise, for your skeptical argument to be cogent, you would have to show that your scenario is not only possible but significantly probable. That is, you would have to show that, given the possibility of brute facts, they are likely to pop up even where they most clearly seem to be absent, i.e. where we seem most clearly to have reliable explanations (e.g. lunar eclipses).
Finally, what about the terms used to justify the claims that God is self-explanatory? Did I unfairly dismiss these as ad hoc devices? The fact that a concept has a respectable pedigree does not mean that it has legitimate application in a given context. As you note, the actuality/potentiality was developed by Aristotle to deal with the challenge of the Eleatics about change. There is nothing wrong with concepts of actuality and potentiality per se; indeed, as I indicate above, I endorse their use in the philosophy of science. But, as Kant argued at great length, even concepts that are quite innocent in one environment can become obscurantist in another. Such—or so it appears to me—is the case when the innocent actuality/potentiality distinction becomes the basis for saying things like “God is pure actuality” or “God is the act of existence.” It makes sense to say that something actualizes its potential, but even if something actualizes all of its potentials, it does not thereby become “pure actuality”—whatever that is. We speak meaningfully of tasks being completed but nothing is “pure completeness.” An empty vessel can be filled, but nothing is “pure fullness.” “Actuality,” like “completeness” or “fullness,” seems to me to be an abstract noun that has it uses but cannot constitute the identity of a substance.
BTW, saying, as I did, that these terms sounded obscure and fishy to me was a personal confession, not a blanket condemnation. The EPR paradox sounded obscure to me until Prof. John Earman explained it to me in grad school. Saying how these terms sound to me was not a dismissal but an invitation to be instructed. Tell you what: If you will send me a (signed, if you would) copy of your book Scholastic Metaphysics, I will read it carefully and give it a thorough review.
I will address your other responses after 3/15. Thanks much for this enjoyable and informative exchange.

bookmark_borderNaturalism and Objectively Horrifying Evils

A serious and thoughtful objection against metaphysical naturalism is that it cannot provide a basis for some of our deepest and most intuitive moral judgments. If so, a metaphysical naturalist could bite the bullet and say “so much for our deepest and most intuitive moral judgments!” Still, if this consequence could be avoided, it would remove a major stumbling-block for those who might otherwise view atheism as plausible.

The argument is clearly stated by Alvin Plantinga. He first notes that there seem to be instances of real and objectively horrifying evil in the world (Plantinga, The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 326). The real and objectively horrifying acts that Plantinga means are those that are purposely and maliciously committed, like the hideous tortures and genocidal atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein, Stalin, the Nazis, or the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. We think that such acts are objectively horrifying, that is, that they would remain enormously evil even if all human beings could be somehow brainwashed into approving of them.

Plantinga comments:

Naturalism does not have the resources to explain or accommodate this fact about these states of affairs [that they are objectively evil and horrifying]. From a naturalistic point of view, about all we can say is that we do indeed hate them; but this is far short of seeing them as intrinsically horrifying. How can we understand this intrinsically horrifying character? After all, as much misery and suffering can occur in a death from cancer as in a death caused by someone else’s wickedness. What is the difference? The difference lies in the perpetrators and their intentions. Those who engage in this sort of thing are purposely and intentionally setting themselves to do these wicked things. But why is this objectively horrifying? A good answer (and one for which it is hard to think of an alternative) is that the evil consists in defying God, the source of all that is good and just, and the first being of the universe. What is horrifying here is not merely going against God’s will, but consciously choosing to invert the true scale of values…(Ibid., p. 326).

Plantinga says that it is not opposition to God’s will per se that makes an act intrinsically wicked and horrifying, but its intentional inversion of the true scale of values. But are theists the only ones allowed to posit a true scale of values? Why should this be so? Why cannot a metaphysical naturalist reasonably hold, e.g., that kindness is good and cruelty is bad, and would be so even if somehow all humans were perversely brainwashed into thinking that they weren’t? Plantinga seems to be assuming that a naturalist must be a subjectivist about values, that is, that for naturalists value is a function of how we feel about things. For the subjectivist, the only thing that can make cruelty bad is that we all feel a collective sense of horror or disgust when we contemplate cruel acts.

But naturalistic alternatives to subjectivism are well known, and have been for centuries. Aristotle articulated such an alternative 2400 years ago. In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle argued that the state of human well-being or flourishing, eudaimonia in Greek, is, objectively, the good for human beings. Eudaimonia is not made good by our feeling that it is. It would still be good if, perversely, all human beings were made to feel that it wasn’t. Neither is Eudaimonia made desirable by the fact that we do desire it; it would be desirable even if no human being desired it. Eudaimonia is best understood as a state of mental and moral excellence accompanied by a sufficiency of material and bodily goods. What makes such a state the good for man? Biology, says Aristotle—the biological nature of the human organism. Nature has designed the human organism to fulfill a characteristic function, just as other organisms are adapted to the performance of their roles in the economy of nature. Nature has therefore given humans the natural potentialities which, if actualized, will permit them to fulfill that function in an excellent manner. Humans are naturally adapted to live a life of intellectual and moral virtue in society with other human beings. This does not mean that most people actually live such a life; far from it. Most do not even perceive such a life as the natural end or goal of human striving, the state that is eminently and intrinsically worth achieving. Nevertheless, says Aristotle, it is in such a state, where human mental and moral capabilities are fully actualized, that humans will find the most fulfilling and rewarding life, for it is naturally pleasant to enjoy the use of our rational and moral faculties. Further, since most of our unhappiness in life springs from flaws in our own characters, particularly, as Aristotle notes, from our failure to form habits that avoid extremes of behavior (e.g., excessive anger or deficient generosity), the moderation entailed by virtue leads to a life of peace and equanimity even in the face of adversity.

Some have criticized Aristotle’s vision of the good life as elitist. Such critics say that it may spell out the best life for a well-off and well-educated Greek gentleman of the Fourth Century B.C.E., but its vision of the ideal life may be inappropriate to people of very different temperaments or cultural backgrounds. There may be something to such criticisms (not terribly much, in my opinion), but if naturalistic moralists can succeed in indicating, at least in broad outlines, the life that is intrinsically most rewarding and fulfilling for human organisms, then they will have identified something objectively valuable for human beings. That state will be objectively valuable in the sense Plantinga specifies, that is, it will be so even if everyone perversely identifies their well-being with something else, say, a life of hedonistic indulgence in sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, or one of self-righteous indulgence in persecuting everyone who does not share one’s particular religious fixations. In other words, naturalists will have succeeded in identifying a set of objective values and can say, with as much justification as any theist, that some actions are laudable and others are horrifying because they tend either to promote or to thwart the realization of human well-being. If there is an objective state of human flourishing, then those who purposely and intentionally seek to impede the realization of that state in others, say by crushing the human body, mind, or spirit, are engaged in objectively horrifying and wicked acts. Those who do such things, to use Plantinga’s phrasing, are choosing to invert the true scale of values; they are preventing both their victims and themselves from attaining the natural end of human beings. So, metaphysical naturalism seems quite compatible with a moral view that recognizes certain actions as violently opposed to the true, objective scale of values, and hence as intrinsically horrifying.