On Feser’s Argument for the Act-Potency Distinction


A post originally published on AUGUST 23, 2021
🔗 Feser’s Argument from Change for the Act-Potency Distinction by Joe Schmid

As Feser (2014, pp. 34-35) reads it, Parmenides’s argument against change runs:

  1. Change would require being to arise out of non-being or nothingness
  2. But from non-being or nothingness, nothing can arise
  3. So, change is impossible

Where does the argument go wrong? Here’s Feser’s answer:

The problem with Parmenides’ reasoning, in Aristotle’s view, is neither in the inference from (1) and (2) to (3), nor with premise (2), with which Aristotle agrees. It is rather with premise (1), the thesis that change would involve being arising from non-being. For there is, according to Aristotle, an alternative analysis of change, on which it involves, not being arising from non-being, but rather one kind of being arising from another kind. In particular, there is being-in-act — the ways a thing actually is; and there is being-in-potency — the ways a thing could potentially be.

Scholastic Metaphysics, p. 35

Feser goes on to explain:

These potentialities or potencies are real features of the ball itself, even if they are not actualities. The ball’s potential flatness, squishiness, roughness, etc. are not nothing, even if they do not have the kind of being that the ball’s roundness, solidity, smoothness, etc. currently have. That is why the ball can become flat, squishy, and rough in a way it cannot become sentient, or eloquent, or capable of doing arithmetic. Being-in-potency is thus a middle ground between being-in-act on the one hand, and sheer nothingness or non-being on the other. And change is not a matter of being arising from non-being, but rather of being-in-act arising from being-in-potency. It is the actualization of a potential — of something previously non-actual but still real.

Scholastic Metaphysics, p. 36

Feser’s argument from change for the act-potency distinction, then, is essentially the following:

  1. If there is change, then if there is no distinction between act and potency, then being arises from non-being.
  2. There is change.
  3. Being cannot arise from non-being.
  4. So, there is a distinction between act and potency.

What to make of this argument?

What I make of the argument depends on whether eternalism or presentism is true.

With an eternalist hat on, I say that (i) there certainly is change, but (ii) change is simply variance in the properties of four-dimensional objects along their temporal dimension. This doesn’t involve or entail being arising from non-being. It simply involves variance in actual features. In that case, premise (1) is false, since whether or not there is a distinction between act and potency, there is no instance of being arising from non-being.

With a presentist hat on, I say that change is (roughly) the following: x doesn’t exist at some point, and then at some later point x exists, or else x exists at some point, and then at some later point x doesn’t exist (where x is some positive ontological item). (If we want to disallow coming to be and passing away as changes, we can modify the account as follows: S is F at some point and then at some later point S is ~F, or else S is ~F at some point and then at some later point S is F.)

This won’t happen inexplicably—there will be some explanation for why it happens. Ordinarily, something will causally produce (or causally destroy) x. The only sense in which we have “being arising from non-being” here is the entirely unproblematic sense in which x didn’t previously exist, but now exists. There is nothing absurd about this. It’s not like something is springing into being uncausedly and inexplicably. That, I tend to think, would be absurd. But that isn’t the proposal.

Thus, if Parmenides or Feser wants to show why the view I’ve outlined entails some problematic “being arising from non-being,” they need something more than the mere assertion of ex nihilo nihil fit. For in my view, x doesn’t “come from nothing”—x instead comes from a prior cause (or explanation). This doesn’t require x to exist in some ghostly or ethereal “state of potency” prior to x’s coming about. In the analysis I’ve sketched, (i) there is change, (ii) there is no problematic instance of being arising from non-being, and yet (iii) change doesn’t involve the transition or reduction from potential being to actual being. And so premise (1) is false.

Feser’s argument, then, doesn’t support the act-potency analysis of change—at least, not as the argument currently stands (as it entirely lacks justification for the principle “being cannot arise from non-being” in the sense of “it cannot be the case that <x did not exist at t-1 and then x exists at t>”).

What’s more, Feser’s “solution” doesn’t seem to solve Parmenides’s puzzle. By Feser’s own lights, change involves one kind of being—a given being-in-act [e.g., being-warm-in-act]—arising from a state lacking that kind of being (namely, a state involving a different kind of being—being-in-potency [e.g., being-warm-in-potency]). In that case, though, Feser must admit—along with me—that something exists at t that did not exist at t-1—namely, the relevant being-in-act.

To make things concrete, suppose coffee goes from warm (at t-1) to cold (at t). Then, on Feser’s own analysis, at t-1 the relevant actual being (the actual coldness of the coffee) did not exist (i.e., was not real or in reality). Then, at a later time t, it exists. Feser, then, is equally committed to denying the principle that “it cannot be the case that <x did not exist at t-1 and then x exists at t>.” And so Feser has to grant the very thing that is allegedly problematic on my analysis. What this tells us, I think, is that it simply isn’t problematic at all.

Thus, not only does Feser’s argument from change for the act-potency analysis fail to justify ruling out my view (which it would need to do in order to succeed, since my view is one on which premise (1) is false), but Feser’s own analysis is committed to the very thing that is allegedly problematic about my analysis.

In addition to these two problems, there’s a third: Feser’s proposal requires pluralism about being. But many able philosophers have argued—reasonably forcefully by my lights—against pluralism about being.

As a concluding note, I don’t actually claim to have offered here a proper or true analysis of change. I used ‘my analysis’ and ‘my view’ as a foil to compare Feser’s view with an alternative view. I think the alternative view is superior to Feser’s view, but I don’t claim (in this blog post) that it’s true simpliciter or even likely true.

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