Feser’s Argument from Change for the Act-Potency Distinction

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:

Scholastic Metaphysics, p. 35

Feser goes on to explain:

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.]

Author: Joe

7 Comments

  1. Rather than joining you in saying that the actual coldness of the coffee existed at t and didn’t exist at t-1, Feser would say that the actual coldness of the coffee “was previously non-actual but still real.” He would say that the actual coldness of the coffee at t is the same thing as the coldness potency at t-1. At time t, he would deny that in the time leading up to t whenever the actual coldness of the coffee is real it is actual.
    That’s compatible with a principle which requires everything which is real in a moment to have been real at each previous moment. If Parmenides was appealing to such a principle, that principle is more likely (than the first premise) to have been the weak link in his argument. And that removes the motivation that Feser offers for the reality of potencies.

    • “Rather than joining you in saying that the actual coldness of the coffee existed at t and didn’t exist at t-1, Feser would say that the actual coldness of the coffee “was previously non-actual but still real.” He would say that the actual coldness of the coffee at t is the same thing as the coldness potency at t-1. At time t, he would deny that in the time leading up to t whenever the actual coldness of the coffee is real it is actual.”

      Excellent comment! I thought of this manouevre as well. It didn’t seem plausible to me, though. For what would it mean to say that the *actual* coldness of the coffee was *non-actual*? We seem to be saying that the *actual* coldness of the coffee is both actual at t-1 [since we have granted that it is, in fact, *actual* coldness] and non-actual at t-1.

      Perhaps you mean to talk about higher-order potencies and actualities, but if so, then the problem simply re-arises, it seems.

      Here is how I’m thinking about it:

      We have the first order coldness, C. Now, on Feser’s analysis, *C* is non-actual at t-1. It is potential. And then *C* is actual at t. But *C’s actuality* only exists at t. For if *C’s actuality* exists at t-1, then C is actual at t-1, contra our supposition.

      I guess we could speak of:

      First-order coldness: C
      Second-order potency and actuality of coldness: P(C) and A(C)
      Third-order potencies and actualities: e.g. P(A(C)) means [C’s actuality] is itself in potency.

      We could then say that what exists at t-1 and t is as follows:

      t-1: P(C), P(A(C))

      t: A(C), A(A(C))

      Importantly, though, the being-cold-in-act isn’t there at t-1. Instead, only being-cold-in-potency is there at t-1. You could say that being-cold-in-act is at t-1 in the sense of being-[being-cold-in-act]-in-potency is there at t-1. But naturally enough, the problem arises once more. For in that case, being-[being-cold-in-act]-in-actuality isn’t there at t-1. To avoid this, Feser must posit a being-[being-[being-cold-in-act]-in-actuality]-in-potency. And yet the problem re-arises. And so we seem led into an infinite postulation of potencies to resolve the problem, which seems absurd.

      And, finally, I agree that the most fundamental criticism of Feser’s argument is that Parmenides’ principle — in the way it needs to be understood for the argument to get up and running — is the weakest link. I think it’s utterly unmotivated and likely false. But I still think, in light of my above points, that the ‘tu quoque’ response has some teeth. 🙂 <3

      • To say that the actual-coldness of the coffee was non-actual is like saying that an engaged-person was once not engaged. They are a fiancé now, but the fiancé was once not a fiancé.

        • Indeed, but surely the person’s *actually being engaged* didn’t exist when the person wasn’t engaged. In other words, the *act* or *actuality* of being engaged wasn’t there when the person wasn’t, in fact, engaged. [There’s one potential [pun intended] way to get around this, but I think this leads to an absurd postulation of infinitely many potentials with the problem re-arising at every step.]

      • Here’s one way that a couple may have gotten engaged: The act of engagement was a former potency. The act was a self-sufficient act in the sense that it was a real act but it had no real actuality which was distinct from the act of engagement. Parmenides had no objections, and infinitely many potencies were not required. Would a Thomist think it’s possible for there to be a self-sufficient act? Yes! Because if there’s a possible world in which God is simple, alone, and an act, then either it’s possible for there to be a real act which is it’s own real actuality or it’s possible for there to be a real act with no real actuality.

  2. Hi Joe,

    On the presentist account of change that you sketch, you said that S can gain or lose features, and this happens because of some cause. However, wouldn’t this appeal to potency in S? Because wouldn’t this involve S having the ability to be causally affected by something, which just is for it to have passive potency or stand in potency to the cause?

    Also, if the hot coffee can become cold due to the causality of something, then wouldn’t this mean that there is an ability in the hot coffee to become cold, and this ability just is potency?

    • Thanks for the comment! <3

      Those, however, are separate arguments [or, rather, claims] from the one under consideration. Those amount to *granting* that Feser's argument by itself doesn't justify the act-potency distinction; instead, you've switched to a different argument — namely, an argument to the effect that causation, powers, and abilities require appeal to potency. Importantly, though, this is different from the argument Feser gives. So my point, I think stands. 🙂

      Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, we don't need 'potential being' to account for causation or powers or liabilities. There are whole swathes of analyses of these concepts that make no reference to a different *kind* of being [viz. potential being].

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