Thursday, May 7, 2009

Act and potency

James Chastek of Just Thomism suggests: “A thomist could probably teach the whole history of modern thought as an overlooking of the distinction between potency and act.”

Well said. Readers of this blog and of The Last Superstition have known me to identify the abandonment of final causes as the original sin of modern philosophy. But one might just as well bang on the act and potency drum, as the Neo-Scholastics did, and as I do myself in much of TLS. For the notions are deeply interrelated: A potency or potential is a potency for some act or actuality, toward which it points as an end; and to have an end is to be in potency towards it. It is not for nothing that the very first of the famous Twenty Four Thomistic Theses is: “Potency and Act divide being in such a way that whatever is, is either pure act, or of necessity it is composed of potency and act as primary and intrinsic principles.”

Now, one does find echoes of the Aristotelian-Scholastic doctrine of act and potency in some of the early moderns. That God is Pure Actuality is a thesis taken for granted in Descartes’ Third Meditation. Leibniz, for my money the greatest of the moderns, makes a valiant attempt to salvage for them the Aristotelian final cause/efficient cause and act/potency distinctions. But it couldn’t last, and with the rise of empiricism these fragments of ancient wisdom (like pretty much all wisdom, when one becomes an empiricist) get sucked down the memory hole almost irretrievably.

So what? Well, for starters, you can’t understand Aquinas’s First Way, the argument for an Unmoved Mover – which he judged to be the most evident of the arguments for God’s existence (rightly, I increasingly think) – unless you understand the act/potency distinction. More importantly, you can’t understand why the argument works, and is ultimately immune not only to the standard caricatures but even to more serious and worthy objections, unless you understand the act/potency distinction. (I defend the argument in TLS, and in much greater depth and without all those nasty polemics, in the forthcoming Aquinas.)

Nor can you understand how contemporary (e.g. Kripke-Putnam) essentialism differs from real essentialism (i.e. the Aristotelian kind) unless you understand the act/potency distinction. For example, when it occurs to you that Terri Schiavo could not exercise the power of reason given the brain damage she had suffered, you might start to wonder whether rationality is part of the essence of human beings after all. For here is a human being who (so it is claimed) lacks reason; therefore (the modern “essentialist” might conclude) reason must not be essential to being human. But when you keep in mind the distinction between act and potency – in particular, when you recall the distinctions between first and second actuality and first and second potentiality explained on your favorite page of TLS – you see that this simply does not follow at all.

I quote myself (somebody has to do it):

‘A thing’s various actualities and potentialities exist in a layered fashion and constitute a hierarchy, as I will now demonstrate with a paragraph full of somewhat dry technical distinctions. (Bear with me.) Since you are a human being, you are a rational animal; because you are a rational animal, you have the power or faculty of speech; and because you have this power, you sometimes exercise it and speak. Your actually having the power of speech flows from your actually being a rational animal; it is a “secondary actuality” relative to your being a rational animal, which is a “primary actuality.” And your actually exercising that power on some occasion is in turn a “secondary actuality” relative to your having the power – which, at least relative to the actual exercise of it, is “primary.” (Note that you have the power even when you don’t exercise it, e.g. when you are sleeping or competing in a breath-holding contest.) There are similar distinctions to be drawn with respect to potentiality. Suppose you don’t speak German. You nevertheless have the potential to speak it, in the sense that you might learn it. Call this a “first potentiality” for speaking German. Now, even once you do learn it, you won’t of course be speaking it all the time, even though you could speak it at any particular moment if you wanted to. You thus now have the potential to speak German in another sense. Call this a “second potentiality” for speaking German. Now acquiring this second sort of potentiality for speaking German – the ability to speak it at will – is also, of course, a kind of actuality, insofar as you now actually have the ability to speak it. So a second potentiality is also a kind of primary actuality; and when you really do go ahead and speak German, exercising your new ability, the act of speaking counts as a secondary actuality relative to this primary actuality. I could make further distinctions – and I know you want me to – but that’s enough to make the point.’ (The Last Superstition, p. 56)

Now you know why I included the polemics. Had to find some way to keep the reader awake. (In case you recently ordered the book from Amazon and are now in a state of panic, wondering whether you can still cancel, I suppose should add that I have chosen to quote the single dullest passage in the entire near-300 page opus. The theory is that the still undecided buyer will think “Hmm, well, I guess the rest could only be better!”)

Anyway: The point of all this is that it is too simple to ask whether (say) “rationality” or “language” or “actual episodes of thought” are essential to being a person, or a human being, or whatever, full stop. We need to consider that these various characteristics are related in a layered fashion, and can exist either “in act” (or actually) or “in potency” (or potentially), where the potentials in question are grounded in the actualities.

To apply all this to the case at hand: Terri Schiavo, like every human being, is a rational animal as a primary actuality. And this remains true if she is impeded, by the damage to her brain, from exercising the various capacities that normally follow upon rational animality as secondary actualities. Put another way, in being a human being at all she has a first potentiality for speech, episodes of thought, and the like. When her brain is in good working order she also has a second potentiality for these capacities. But when it is damaged, though she loses this second potentiality, the first potentiality remains. That is precisely why, had regenerative treatments had been available, the second potentiality would have returned. What made her different from a “vegetable” or a mere animal is that these things never even have or could have rational animality as a primary actuality, and never even have or could have the capacity for speech, episodes of thought, etc. as a first potentiality. All told, Terri is neither a potential rational animal, nor a former rational animal, but an actual rational animal who has been frustrated in realizing her potentials. Vegetables and animals, by contrast, are never rational animals at all. They don’t “fail” to realize the potential for speech, episodes of thought, etc., because unlike even a brain damaged human being, they never have those potentials in the first place.

The relevance to abortion should be obvious. A fetus too isn’t a potentially rational animal or a potential person. A fetus is an actual rational animal and thus an actual person who hasn’t yet realized all his potentials. Etc.

Here is another reason, then, why the act/potency distinction is so important: without it we can be led into moral error as serious as the murder of innocent persons, as in abortion and infanticide.

And that’s just for starters. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a cloud of philosophical error, indeed the entire Hurricane Katrina of error that is modern philosophy, is condensed in this one basic mistake of overlooking the act/potency distinction. The history of modern thought – indeed of modern civilization – is a history of the gradual “actualization” of all the unhappy potentialities that lie coiled in this primal error.

(For those readers interested in a refresher on act and potency, you can’t beat this chapter from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought.)


Crude said...

Heya Ed. Very enlightening, and the distinction is made much clearer.

I do have one question. How does this approach work when it comes to, say, genetically modifying plants or animals? For instance, there are rabbits that have been genetically modified to glow in the dark. Would this be in its own unique class / not 'filed' here? Would it be a first potentiality (assuming such a modification could be made while the creature is still living)? Something else?

I know it's not a question Aristotle or Aquinas had to answer (or probably thought was even an issue) but it's one thing which puzzles me on this topic.

Athanasius said...

The abortion example is a good one. Here's another: some of the arguments around gay marriage.

The traditional understanding of marriage has linked it closely (though not exclusively) with the right/responsibility to have children. It is argued on this basis that gay couples cannot "marry", at least in the sense in which marriage has always been understood, bacause they cannot conceive children.

The rejoinder is that infertile straight couples are allowed to marry, that "infertile" gay couples are for important purpsoes the same, and therefore should have the same right.

But "infertility" means different things for gay and straight couples. In the case of a straight couple, it means that their physiological fertility has retreated from actuality into potentiality, but their fertility in a higher sense (of sexual complementarity) remains actual.

For a gay couple, there isn't either potentiality or actuality for fertility at either level. So the rejoinder fails.

Jack said...

Thankyou again Prof Feser for enlightning us with ancient wisdom, just out of interest is there a planned publication date for "Aquinas"?

Damien S said...


Do you gleam any wisdom from Wittgenstein? Was he apt at pointing to some of the errors of modernism? Could the same be said of Heidegger?


Chen-song said...

Hi Professor Feser, thanks for another interesting post. I have a similar question to Crude, but even more far-reaching. For the genetic modification of rabbits, what if the rabbits are modified (say with human DNA) such that they can think like humans? I know that in this case the rabbit probably can't be called "rabbit" anymore, and is some sort of chimera, but how can that be explained in terms of act/potency?

There is a related issue I ran into a while ago: Someone posed a thought experiment about a dead brainless corpse getting fitted with a brain by a mad scientist. If the "mad science" works and the corpse is alive and thinking again, does that mean the brainless corpse had the potential to be alive? Or did the potential really somehow belong to the transplanted brain?

Crude said...


Upon reflection, I think I have at least a partial answer to this - though I of course hope Ed will weigh in on the question.

I think in the broadest sense a corpse would 'have the potential to be alive' at least by Aquinas' thought. Why should be obvious.

But the potential is related to the act of an external agent - and said agents seem to be the real wild card here. We're not talking about rabbits suddenly and inexplicably having human-like thoughts, or suddenly glowing in the dark. I know in both our examples we explicitly are talking about genetic tinkering and tampering, but I think the key may be to realize that in one case we're talking about the vastly normal progression of nature, and in these other cases some highly unnatural, unusual tampering.

So the answer may be similar to why, say, clay has the potential to be a statue. This isn't a complete answer, and I'm a total amateur here, but it's the direction I'm considering it in.

CrimsonCatholic said...

Dr. Feser:
I, for one, am always glad to see posts on the highest science (at least so far as natural reason can take us).

Regarding act and potency with respect to God, it is my understanding that God in His essence has no potency in the sense of primary actuality (that is to say, passive potency) but does have second potency (active potency, or more plainly in this case, omnipotence) that is contingent, albeit fixed from eternity, in terms of what created effects God can produce.

Some have argued that the divine simplicity requires that God must create what he created (or at least create something-or-another), along the lines of Origen. Others argue that there must be a real distinction between God's good will (eudokia) as manifested toward creation (energies) and what God is in Himself (essence) to avoid this difficulty, so that the energies, while necessarily related to God and being God in some sense, are not God's essence.

I think this pertains directly to your argument in that it concerns God as the author of natures, and the relationship between God and man is key to understanding the basis for the dignity of man. How would you explain the fact that God has second potentiality (specifically, omnipotence with respect to what He can create) in view of the divine simplicity?

Matt Beck said...

Crude and Chen-song,

Here's my two cents. Firstly, by inserting a gene into a rabbit's genome that causes it to glow in the dark (or inserting the Bt gene into a corn plant to make it pest-resistant, or whatever), we have simply appended an "accident" to its essential being. It is not really any different than receiving a tattoo or ingesting an oral fungicide; it's just accomplished using a more round-about method.

This is one good reason why genetic reductionism simply will not work. My genome is no more "essential" to me than my left arm. The disruption of my genome would be akin to the amputation of a limb: undesirable yes, but powerless to effect my essential being.

I think the confusion arises from three sources. First, the presence of an intact and functioning genome is necessary for the developmental actualization of every organism. A defect in this regard leads to rather obvious disfigurements and diseases, so it's easy to elide the distinction between "essential being" and "intact genome" if we are not fortified against this error by the rejection of genetic reductionism.

Second, because the processes of molecular biology occur beneath our level of sensory awareness and most of it is unknown to us, we imagine it to be some sort of black box which we mistakenly equate with the unseen three dimensional figures who cause the shadows to move in Plato's cave. This is what we might call "incomplete idealism."

Third, the hyped media reports of the successes achieved in genetic engineering play to the deep-seated Cartesionism with which we moderns are all infected, leading us to believe that intrinsic changes were wrought in the essential beings of plants and animals when in fact no such thing has occured. We must take the time to untangle the philosophy and the methodology of these cases before simply accepting the truth value of such statements as "Scientists Unlock the Secret of Aggressive Behavior," or some other such nonsense.

As for human-animal chimeras, the basic hylemorphic position is that human cells, or human DNA, integrated into the organism of a rabbit would subsist virtually in the rabbit, and hence would be 100%part of the rabbit not part of any human. If rabbits, or some other animal, were refitted with human brains, this would not suffice to make them rational animals; they would still be mere animals sporting human tissue.

In order to understand the case of the corpse, let's chnage the organs in the thought experiment. A heartless corpse certainly has the potential to live again if it received a timely heart transplant. Does the potential exist in the transplanted heart or in the heartless body? Actually it exists in neither, but only in the substantial form "human being," which requires a certain minimally intact body to actualize itself. The heart in question need not even be an organic heart, but might be a mechanical prosthesis. The same could be said of the brain. Some type of organ or device is needed to govern the body's basic metabolic and endocrinological functions so that it does not succumb to disintegration, but this need not be a brain as we usually understand the term. Thinking, on the other hand, is an activity that belongs to the soul, not to the brain. The basic fallacy here is the Cartesian notion that the brain is the ghost in the machine, the seat of consciousness inhabiting otherwise inert matter.

We would do well to remember here Leibniz's admonishment that human beings are not really born and do not really die. Their souls are created by God to be the rational form of their bodies,and are multiplied as bodies are mulitplied; but the soul remains immortal once created, is seperated from the body at death, and will one day be reunited to it. The body is "alive" only by virtue of the soul and not through some mysterious power of its own.

Frederic Kolman said...

Edward-- Who is going to be thinking about "act and potency" and where? The problem with this informational scheme, I think, is that it borders on revisionist history. No one can deny that a pro-life person feels strongly that the unborn foetus must be protected so that he can come on earth and live out his life. That is what he believes because the woman's egg has been fertilized and all that type of biology. OK. It is not the concept of act/potency that convinces me there. When you are teaching adolescents values in the high school, you are trying to prepare them with the correct moral thinking, so that when they embark on their adult lives they will exhibit, for the good of society, sound moral reasoning. I think talking "potency" and "actuality" to them will only serve to confuse them. Remember: what is good, Phaedrus? Well, what is not good? If A murders, he is a murderer. We just asked him in a high school values class to please not murder. He has carried out the heinous crime. Going over secondary actualities in this regard does not help. Put another way, I am saying that thinking about "act" and "potency" has to be clear to me as a retroactive or proactive strategy. It is not. What is the content behind the conation and volition you're referring to?

J said...

....Reginald Garrigou-Lagrangeaka the Aquinas-Primer for the Vichy-catholic.

The act-potentiality distinction of Aristotle has little or nothing to do with the Old or New Testaments. It's interesting, but really looks more or less like a design argument. Order, stability, continuity, even a type of basic teleology (acorn to oak, etc.) do not in themselves suffice as proof of monotheism (much less the inerrancy of scripture). The black plague or spanish influenza does not lack a certain order either.

Anonymous said...

That is in fact my favorite page from TLS.

Anonymous said...


Let us know when you come up with some objections that apply to what Feser actually says. He doesn't argue that act/potency or teleology somehow provide an argument for the inerrancy of scripture or the truth of Christianity. He argues that Aristotelian metaphysics entails the existence of God and that independent, historical considerations, combined with purely philosophical monotheism, provide good arguments for the truth of Christian revelation. You're wasting your preciously finite life by attacking things that Feser doesn't say. Try going at what he does say; it shouldn't be that hard, even for you.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...


Already been there, anny: sort of reminding the few non-dogmatic newbies of some obvious points (though important regardless) .

Maybe for yr first Ebonics Skepticism 101 reading, try Kant's First Antinomy (cliffsnotes somewhere, ich denke), which sort of suggests that the supposed necessary First Cause/Cosmological argument, ain't necessary (no contradictions implied with infinite series, however unpleasant that might be to some believers). That shouldn't be too difficult, even for you.

Just another mad Catholic said...

J it appears from your presentation of Kant that he's attacking what today we call the Kalam Cosmological argument. That is not Aquina's act/potency. I don't know if you've read the TLS but Feser makes that clear in his writing.

Chen-song said...

Crude and Matt: Thanks for your replies. Here both of you guys are talking about the Form of the animal being something quite different from the genetic blueprint, and therefore changing genetics does not affect the underlying essence. Am I correct? I think materialists dislike this because something like the Form or essences are not empirically knowable, and most people today have a very materialist view in something like this.

BTW, Matt, I'm Gregmita from John Reilly's website, and the corpse question I mentioned is actually the one you talked about before. :) Your notion that the brain does not "think" is interesting. By "thinking" you are talking about Aristotle's "intellect" rather than "sensual knowledge" right? The latter is definitely and provably done in the brain, whereas the former is immaterial and seemingly irreducible to material causes.

J.: Kant's First Antinomy talks about the beginning of the universe and time, (Steve Hawking had some interesting things to say about it) and is therefore about accidental causal series rather than essential causal series. I think Prof. Feser has taken great pains, in his books and here, to show that the First Cause argument is about the latter and not the former.

Toddler Thomist said...

J: How nice of you to bring up Kant's antimonies. Can I just say that if you wish to throw doubt on a position by using those antimonies, you inadvertently end up making me think the position probably has merit. Kant's antimonies stink. Philosophically, that it. They are just plain bad thinking. Bad thinking by a bad philosopher.

Chen-song said...

BTW, J.: On Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, it's much better to attack a philosopher's actual ideas rather than the political choices he had made. An embarrassingly large proportion of the French were quite loyal to P├ętain.

J said...

Yes, Kant, bad philosopher. That's a klassic katolico ad hominem.

Let's put it this way: simply retreating to dogma is the easy way out, which Doc Feser generally resorts to. Hume (ewww, bad guy philosopher) following earlier empiricists did something called epistemology. How do we know, like, anything? The greeks and theologians did not generally bother with that issue, at least in detail (well, some empiricists and skeptics did, but dogmatists like Ari and Plato didn't). Hume then presents various compelling reasons why no a priori causality holds, and why all knowledge derives from experience: "no ideas without antecedent impressions". (Kant responds to that, and few would say he succeeds completely). It's also important to note that experimental science depended on that sort of inductive knowledge from experience, however vull-gar some papists might find it.

Shortcomings there are to empiricism (or associationism, constructivism, etc), yet simply insisting that it's wrong, or can't explain thinking, mind, etc is not an argument. It's the dogmatists who duck the issue (that said, I will grant I have only excerpts of TLS online: yet some of us read Ari's categories and the "classical" arguments years ago).

Anonymous said...


I think avowed "materialists" dislike such things for other reasons than stated, but the inability to empirically "know" such would be a complaint, sure. Either way, yes, that's the way I'd be tempted to view such. I myself pretty much assumed the more materialist view until reading Ed's book - now I'm forced to admit that the A-T view has some serious strengths and is generally compelling. Looking forward to his Aquinas book as well.

Anonymous said...


How exactly is appealing to the authority of Kant not "simply retreating to dogma"?

If you've "been there, done that," it certainly hasn't been in the combox on this blog. Here, at least, you simply seem to think that it's sufficient to drop some names to refute an argument.

I'll come clean: I'm not a religious believer, but I find Aristotelian metaphysics quite compelling, and Feser's arguments seem to show that Aristotelian metaphysics entails philosophical monotheism. I've read Kant, and I've read Hume, and I think it's fairly easy to see that if you aren't persuaded at all by Hume, Kant is a non-starter. If you're willing to give me arguments instead of just telling me that there are famous philosophers who aren't Aristotelians, I'm happy to listen. Otherwise, give it up. People who are really as close-mindedly dogmatic as you take the readers of this blog to be aren't going to be persuaded by anything you say, so it just isn't worth saying anything to them. People who are willing to argue, on the other hand, will insist that you at least provide some arguments to argue with. I've been waiting for you to do that for a while. I'm not infinitely patient, but it certainly won't be hard for me to conclude that you don't have any arguments to make if you just keep citing stuff that you learned as an undergrad. In case you missed the memo, the fact that smart people disagree about stuff doesn't mean that none of them are right or that it's irrational to agree with one of them rather than another. So please, tell me why I shouldn't be an Aristotelian monotheist.

Edward Feser said...

Hello everyone,

Busy, busy, busy, busy. So, some “drive-by” answers:

Crude (and Chen-Song and Matt),
I think that depends on the biological details, in particular on how exactly the modification works. If a modification proceeds by way of a kind of damaging of the genetic material, then it’s analogous to cutting the rabbit’s ears off or the like. It’s the actualization of a potency, but only like the amputation is – that is, it’s not a matter of realizing some inherent tendency, but of frustrating it. (Material creatures, by virtue of being material, always have the potency to be frustrated in the realization of their natural tendencies. Death is the limiting case, and damage of various sorts is just a less extreme kind of frustration. For matter qua matter is always susceptible of losing one form and taking on another.) If the modification is instead a matter of “switching on” a trait that’s latent, though, then it might be more like the realization of an inbuilt tendency, even if a tendency that nature would otherwise have kept dormant.

Re: the rabbit/human hybrid, if something came out that could reason, I’d be inclined to say that it was a severely deformed human being. But the metaphysics here is complicated. Consult Oderberg’s Real Essentialism for a useful discussion of whether “rational animal” necessarily correlates with the biological species category homo sapiens.

Re: the corpse, depending on how you describe the scenario this would not necessarily be different in principle from the way non-human material (e.g. the food the mother eats) goes into making up a new human being in the first place. Just as food goes into making a new organism, so too in principle could the matter that makes up a corpse go into making a new living thing, even if by a different route. But keep in mind that since the corpse is a corpse, it is no longer itself a human being but rather a collection of materials that once constituted a human body and now do not. So using them to create a new human being would not count as the resurrection of the original person at all, unless the specific soul that comes to inform it was the soul that informed the original (something only divine intervention could guarantee).


Exactly. Infertile couples have the potency in question, even if it’s been frustrated. And thus they are capable in principle of realizing the ends of marriage, even if frustrated in practice. Same-sex couples never have the potency in the first place, and thus cannot realize the ends in question even in principle.


Yes, September in the UK, October in the US. If the past is any guide, though, that probably means it will be available via Amazon by late summer.


Yes to Wittgenstein. The only trouble is that his very real insights often seem like obfuscation because of his eschewal of metaphysics – understandable given that the alternative metaphysical possibilities he was aware of were more or less all modern (and thus problematic) ones. But (no surprise) my view is that those insights, when rightly understood, point in an Aristotelian-Thomistic direction. (For what it is worth, the late Wittgensteinian D. Z. Phillips seemed far more sympathetic to Thomists than to modern metaphysicians.)

Yes to Heidegger too, though with greater hesitation. But writers like Hubert Dreyfus have in my view shown that there is much to be learned from him.

Crimson Catholic,

Big topic! I’d say, first, that the arguments that show that God exists show precisely that there is a purely actual, simple, eternal cause of an effect that is nevertheless temporal. So, we know from the arguments that all these things must be true, even if how they can all be true is mysterious to us (and we should expect them to be mysterious, given how far all this takes us beyond experience). But one way to think about how they fit together is (to use an example from Aquinas) by analogy with the way a doctor might prescribe a remedy and the way it is to be taken. His act of prescribing is complete in itself, and he need do no more once he has carried out this prescriptive act even if the effect will not follow until the patient follows the orders, which may be some time later, and indeed might not even occur at all. Similarly, God’s act of creation is eternally complete in itself (and, given divine simplicity, identical with the divine essence) and like the doctor’s act, it would remain so even though the effect is temporal and even if per impossibile the effect didn’t follow at all. Of course, like all analogies this one is limited, but still instructive.


The point is not that people in general need to learn about act/potency before they can make moral judgments about abortion and the like. The point is that the distinction, which (I would say) can be known to be true on independent grounds anyway, is useful in exposing the fallacies in certain popular arguments given in defense of abortion, euthanasia, and the like. Anyway, there’s nothing “revisionist” about it; it was for centuries just the received wisdom among philosophers (wisdom that, as I show in TLS, is being rediscovered even by some contemporary philosophers who have no Thomistic ax to grind).

Anonymous said...

And while you're at it, you might at least get your history of philosophy right. Hume doesn't even purport to show that "no a priori causality holds," and he isn't a good source to cite as a defender of induction. If you accept Hume's arguments about induction, you should conclude that empirical science doesn't give us knowledge. For Hume, inductive conclusions are just generalizations about the correlations of impressions, and can never tell us more than that. For Hume there is nothing more to the idea of causation than the regular association of two impressions in temporal sequence; Hume doesn't allow for a posteriori causation any more than he allows for 'a priori causation.' Moreover, the whole idea that there is such a thing as 'a priori causation' seems like a simple category error. Causation is supposed to be an ontological matter; labeling things a priori and a posteriori (if you buy into that distinction, which, you should probably know, not everybody does, including lots of Aristotelians) is a way of talking about how we know them, not what they are. Perhaps, if you believe in a priori knowledge, you might think that we can know a priori some general stuff about causation -- that causes precede their effects, say, or (if you're Ed Feser) that efficient causes are simultaneous with their effects. But you probably wouldn't say that you could know a priori that fire causes wood to burn, that certain chemical structures cause objects to be solid, or that God causes the universe to exist. Aquinas' own arguments for the existence of God are plainly a posteriori arguments, and he explicitly rejects a priori arguments like Anselm's ontological argument.

In short, it isn't even clear that you properly remember, if you ever understood, those texts that you supposedly read 'years ago.' If you don't understand the philosophers you cite in your defense, how likely is it that you understand the ones you attack?

Anonymous said...

Furthermore, the claim that Plato and Aristotle didn't consider "how we, like, know things" is more or less like saying that the United States didn't exist until 1975. Or have you not read the Theaetetus, the Prior and Posterior Analytics, the Topics, the Physics, the Metaphysics? You're right that "how do we know things" wasn't quite the question they asked -- they preferred "what is knowledge?" -- but the difference is fairly trivial. If, on the other hand, you want to fault the ancients for failing to begin philosophy with epistemology and with skepticism, then perhaps you should go read some contemporary naturalistic epistemology and see whether you think people who disagree with Descartes and Hume on that question are dogmatic idiots.

J said...

Reread the first point on Kant and First Antinomy. Not just dropping names: IK showed (via his use of infinite series) that the scholastic view that a First Cause argument was "necessary", wasn't. The essencia/accidental idea (dogma) doesn't really relate; anyway, the classical essence/substance itself a dogmatic position, more or less rendered obsolete by experimental science (and by a posteriori reasoning, really).

J said...

If you accept Hume's arguments about induction, you should conclude that empirical science doesn't give us knowledge.No, that's the naive, sort of sunday schooler view of Hume. He was not denying knowledge of external world via experience; he denied that it was necessary or axiomatic. Habit, uniformity nature, observation leads to inductive knowledge; not ye olde syllogistic or a priori truths. So Hume anticipates the distinction between synthetic (ie experiential) and supposedly "analytic" truths (axiomatic)--another point the dogmatists routinely overlook.

Toddler Thomist said...

Shortcomings there are to empiricism (or associationism, constructivism, etc), yet simply insisting that it's wrong, or can't explain thinking, mind, etc is not an argument. It's the dogmatists who duck the issue (that said, I will grant I have only excerpts of TLS online: Just as you mentioned Kant's antimonies without support, I decried their value without proof. Same level. If you want to actually get into that discussion, start a thread on your blog and we can go at it.

Your notion of a "dogmatic" stance appears to be any stance that has ever been presented by a source of realism without at that moment also presenting the proof. So what - they prove it elsewhere, of course.

I agree with Anon that it is silly to suggest that the realists like Aristotle and Thomas don't take up the question of how we know, they just don't tackle it first. It is a pedagogic mistake of the first order (such as Descartes and Hume both make) to assume that knowing HOW we know is required before knowing anything else. It is kind of like saying that one must be a dietician before one can profit from eating! Or, better yet, it is like trying to build an internal combustion engine while it is running by using tools powered by the engine itself. You might have difficulty with that.

J said...

It's not without support, and the critical point re infinity as not contradictory was indicated. I leave it to you and Feiserites to google the Kantian antinomies (or say Quentin Smith's similar ideas contra the cosmological argument, and other theological chestnuts).

The idea that the universe starts at one defined point was a scholastic item of faith (and yes, dogma), as it was for Aristotle (not to say problematic given even traditional physics, matter cannot be created, so forth). The schoolmen were not exactly equipped with Steven Hawking like knowledge of big bang for that matter.

The central point of the modern skeptics concerned rational theology, really. RT does not have the sort of logical force that many in theo-biz think it does (for one, the definitions/supposed attributes of a monotheistic God themselves subject to scrutiny). Both Hume and Kant pointed that out, as did subsequent thinkers, including those dreaded naturalists. Believe if you will, but there are no knock-down theological arguments (indeed, they are more metaphorical and allegorical than strictly logical).

Matt Beck said...

Hi Chen-Song/Gregmita,

Nice to run into you again. You wrote:

Your notion that the brain does not "think" is interesting. By "thinking" you are talking about Aristotle's "intellect" rather than "sensual knowledge" right?Yes, that's pretty much what I was talking about. Edward Feser, as is his wont, stated the matter somewhat better than I did.

I do have one hangup concerning the genetics question. Can rationality ever be shown to follow directly from a certain genetic sequence? Why should we award some sort of priority to the genetic "scale" of a being rather than some other scale at which it actualizes itself? There would seem to be an infinity of such scales, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as extended matter without parts. Hence, there can be no fundamental building blocks of matter, nor of life itself. It seems to me that, not just existence itself, but every part of existence stands atop an infinite depth, and thus is in need of a transcendant first cause. It would seem that rationality does not follow from matter at all; that's as far as my thinking takes me.

I'll have to read what Oderberg has to say on the subject, but I've come around to the opinion that "rational animal" does correlate with man; therefore I'm skeptical about the existence of genetically enhanced animals attaining rationality (and extraterrestrial intelligence, for that matter).


Toddler Thomist said...

The idea that the universe starts at one defined point was a scholastic item of faith (and yes, dogma), as it was for Aristotle (not to say problematic given even traditional physics, matter cannot be created, so forth).

J: If you can't get your basic facts straight, then there is not much point in trying to deal with the rest. The Scholastics (well, St. Thomas, at least) explicitly said that creation at a particular point in time was acceptable but not provable according to natural reason, and that it was also conformable with the conclusions of natural reason that the material universe was infinite in time into the past. Aristotle rather famously did NOT think that the universe started at a particular point in time, and his proof for the existence of God does not in the least depend on such a notion.

So although it was indeed an article of faith to St. Thomas that the world started a finite time in the past, he had absolutely no trouble with the fact that this could not be proven by natural reason, and he was perfectly capable of keeping this truth within its proper sphere separate from natural philosophy.

I suspect that you have been foisted off with parahrases and misrepresentations of both Scholastic and Aristotelian arguments, and have never actually had the opportunity to study their works directly.

I read one of Quentin Smith's arguments recently in which he presents the point about an infinite series. I thought that the argument had at least 2 major flaws, and I believe I also read a pretty decent refutation of his argument - I will try to dig up a reference, can't remember where it was.

But in any case, your point about Thomas's First Proof is entirely off topic. It does not advance an argument about why act / potency is an inappropriate way of understanding the world. Why don't you try that task. Your point about Hume does indeed indicate that you think that there is another point of view, but does not actually argue the issue.

Crude said...

Just to second Toddler Thomist here - yes, Aristotle saw the universe as eternal, and Aquinas (to hear every thomist I've heard explain it) assumed the universe was eternal for the purposes of his argument. And this certainly comes up in Ed's book explicitly.

Anonymous said...

If someone on this blog could help I'd appreciate it.
I've recently become a Christian and my family isn't too excited about it. I knew they wouldn't be.
I started reading about intention and how some believe that intention is proof of there existing more than just the material world. Now, this isn't the reason I started to believe. I don't really care to get into that. I mentioned the problem that intentionality is for materialists. He got kind of insultive towards me and then the next day his friend gave him this link to give to me:

It seems to be saying that brain activity precedes intention.
Now I'm wishing I didn't even get in this discussion with him because my faith doesn't hinge on this, but now it looks more foolish than before because he does think that.

Is anyone familiar with these types of studies? He said he can give me "numerous other similar studies" that will show how backwards my reasoning is.

Crude said...

Heya Anonymous,

Ask him to unpack what he's saying. Is he saying intentionality doesn't exist and all things (including minds) are just meaningless machinations of unintended, unpurposeful, mindless material interactions? If so, then why is he trying to 'convince' you of anything? There's no way he can, because there's no reason to be had - just mindless mechanisms puttering along.

You may want to look up the "Argument from Reason" - Ed refers to Reppert's take on it in his book, and it's one of several formulations of similar arguments. As for the experiment cited, no one - not even the strongest dualists I'm aware of - deny that you're going to find correlations between brain activity and thoughts, feelings, etc. Equally, you're not going to find denials that harming the brain will impair mental operations, even severely. So this study cited isn't all that useful - it's a demonstration of what kind of sense-based or motor-response effects correlate to stimulation, not a demonstration of intention in the philosophical sense.

The problem for materialists is explaining (among other things) intentionality A) without dispensing with materialism in the process, and B) without eliminating the very things to be explained (Unless they're eliminativists themselves.) For instance, if a 'materialist explanation' involves mind or purpose being a bedrock constituent of nature (say that formal/final causes or similar are real, or all 'stuff' in the universe contains 'aboutness'), it's no longer a materialist position.

I hope this helps, though others could explain the issue better. (You may want to look at some past posts on this blog - Ed's talked about the intentionality question in the past, and even pointed to some famous atheists, like Bertrand Russell, who did not think materialism was cut out to explain minds.)

And congratulations on keeping your newfound faith in the presence of such hostility.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, Crude!
I've been refreshing this page quite a bit to see if someone would respond.

What he pretty much said was that this study proves that people thought they were consciously performing some action, when in reality that it was the electrical stimulation that preceded their conscious awareness.

Initially I thought it was just an interesting area to read up on. I came across some pretty cool arguments. I didn't think it would turn into such a battleground.

But I guess as you said that would be pretty odd. Maybe the study can't be that generalized from. Because would it be the same as saying that I don't really believe what I believe. I might think I believe what I believe. But in reality I'm just a puppet to my neurons that make me think I actually believe what I believe.

Good gried. My head is spinning.

Crude said...

No problem, anonymous. If this helped out, I'm glad. Apologies for the head-spinning - welcome to the exciting world of what's bluntly entailed by thorough materialism.

But yes, what you get at is the gist of things. By your explanation it sounds to me like your friend is confusing the discovery of a correlation between certain parts of the brain and given experiences (stimulating area X to produce experience Y) with the philosophical question of intentionality.

Keep in mind I'm an amateur here, but here's one way to think about the distinction even with that experiment: Stimulating area X produced thought Y. And thought Y meant the patient was thinking about moving their hands, or thinking about an action they (thought they) performed, etc.

Now, look at area X in the brain. What is area X about? Well, nothing. Purely material things aren't 'about' anything - and if they were, then they aren't material (in this case meaning mechanistic materialism - purposeless, mindless, undirected matter bouncing against matter. But if they're 'about' something at the fundamental level, it isn't mechanistic materialism anymore.)

It's a complicated question, but hopefully you at least see why your friend (at least, by what you've related here) isn't fully grasping this issue. It's along the lines of saying 'You need eyes to see! Eyes are made of stuff! Therefore dualism is incorrect!' But dualists include the material in their view of the world - that's why they're dualists, after all, not idealists. (Which is a whole other kettle o' fish.)

Kristor said...


The grand old man of such neurobiological studies is Daniel Libet. He has published a book called Mind Time about his discovery that intentions form in the brain before we become aware of them. He argues that this does not contradict human freedom, because there seems to be a "veto" that conscious awareness can exercise over the intentions offered up for its consideration by unconscious systems. The intention may be there, but the conscious awareness can decide not to act upon it.

A moment's introspection is all it takes to realize that this is exactly right. I feel an urge to have some ice cream, I know not why. But I decide not to have the ice cream.

In a sense, all the data of our inner life are just that - data, given. We don't really know where they come from. The fact that they come from other parts of the brain does not at all mean that we have no freedom to respond rationally to them. Nor does it mean that the products of unconscious systems of the brain are either irrational or themselves unintensional. If the intentions that arise in your inner life as givens from you know not where were either irrational or the product of systems that were not themselves intensional, then instead of feeling an intention to go get some ice cream or have a beer you'd be feeling intentions to go eat a desk or study up to become a tree.

In fact, the rationality and relevance, and the general good sense, of intentions offered up by unconscious brain systems is an indication, not that we are less rational or free than we thought, but that we are more rational and free than we thought.

CrimsonCatholic said...

Thanks, Dr. Feser! I didn't want to take the discussion too far afield, but I did want to get your intuitions on the subject.

Jime said...

This is off-topic, but maybe some of you have interest in this paper entitled "In defense of dualism" by philosopher John M. DePoe:

DePoe is interested in philosophy of religion too.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

There's no logical or metaphysical law implying that mental events must be separate from brain events, regardless of how many times theists and idealists try to insist there is. While Bertrand Russell may have had problems with naturalism, he also acknowledged that naturalism--and determinism-- could indeed be the case (see Analysis of Mind, an underrated explication of modern psychology, including the radical empiricism of Wm. James and Co). Recent discoveries in brain science show that supposedly mysterious processes like intentionality do apparently occur at specific neurological areas.

There are dangers with a strictly reductionist, naturalist view of human actions--few would like to see a BF Skinner revival--but just as dangerous may be naive cartesianism or idealism of whatever type.

Crude said...

Russell also acknowledged that the truth of theism 'could indeed be the case', if we're going to lower the bar to the realm of what he admitted was possible.

And finding areas of the brain correlated to intention (or at least, being a necessary condition for displaying obvious intentionality) isn't the hard part of the question - that's along the lines of figuring out that the brain plays an important role in thought and consciousness. Explaining intentionality (among other things) while remaining true to mechanistic materialism is the hurdle.

Idealism and even some more cartesian-flavored dualisms are worth discussing to say the least. Hylemorphism may be what I favor, but I'm not going to pretend strong emergentism (which is 'materialist' except in actual spirit) or idealism (unpopular, but does that stop the eliminativists?) have nothing going for them.

Chen-song said...

J: How is the essential/accidental distinction "dogma?" Say you have billiard ball A hitting B, which later hits C. This example is a non-simultaneous causal chain. On the other hand, you can have planet with mass causing gravitational attraction. This causal chain is simultaneous, i.e. one does not come before or after the other. Even if you don't buy the argument that the simultaneous causal chain leads to a First Cause, you must admit that there is a distinction between these two types of causal chains. This is hardly dogma.

Ricky 'The Hitman' Hatton said...

Hi J,
Is there a difference between intention to do something and choosing one intention over another (I have a desire or I intend to walk outside and get some fresh air). Is it the same area of the brain that says, "no, I'm going to decide to stay inside of the house and finish watching this program".

J said...


--I'm rather burnt out on the believer-non-believer chess matches, even in terms of defending Russell, or the Dawkins gang. Russell, while not a believer, however did grant that atheism could not really be conclusively proven: establishing a negative assertion (ie JHVH does not exist) given a rather large domain (ie the universe) presents some problems. That said, BR did think there were more reasons to doubt than to believe.

I view intentionality as a skill of advanced primates, though even a cat hunting a bird shows something like intention, or directedness, focusedness, and after becoming a skilled hunter, she makes the right decision at the right time; Does Mittens then also possess something like a synthetic a priori? Ich denke nicht.

So I think intention depends on habit formation, relates to biological impulses, to experience (not to say visual apparatus) and so forth. One doesn't intend to be hungry for lunch: we are given impulses, and then make something like a decision: taco bell, or burger, etc. The decision itself obviously relates, and follows an impulse, and relates to biological needs. Volition a better term (I think that's called compatibilism" by philo-types, tho' at times I lean towards determinism) . Even with higher-level decisions--say playing chess--there are limits. Decisions are circumscribed. One makes a move-decision given certain parameters: it's more determined than strictly "free". Humans may be unique in terms of their decision making skills, but they just have very clever primate brains--not ghosts flying in and out of their cranium.

Crude said...


You're answering the question of intentionality with "evolution" in essence. The problem is that we're still left with the task of figuring out how to explain intentionality given a mechanistic materialist understanding of the world, even if we suspect evolution may be (or certainly is) involved. The intentionality question isn't merely wondering why humans are 'clever', which is putting it mildly to say the least.

To use another example, consciousness remains a hard problem even if we assert "well, bats are conscious too!" By the same token, we can say "Lesser primates deal in intentionality too!" - wonderful. Given a mechanistic materialist description of the world, how is intentionality accounted for and explained? In a world where all things physical aren't (or aren't supposed to be) "about" anything else, how do we have ANYthing 'thinking about' something?

No one needs to bring up 'ghosts' (which panpsychists, idealists, hylemorphic dualists, and many other dualists would deny besides) to see there's a problem here. And if the materialist response is "in spite of all this materialism must be right, because the alternatives are unthinkable", well, maybe broader thinking is in order.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone.
Thanks for all of the responses regarding my questions with intention.
I see that there are different connotations for that word: Intention (desire or direction of act) or Intention (Intentionality; thoughts being about other things).

When you say intention it sounds like it in the first sense. Not so much the fact that thoughts can be about other things.

Anonymous said...

with regards to artificial methods of contraception like sterilization, condoms, and the like, sperm cells are not actual persons... are we not violating the natural law in that case?

Sami Teeny said...

Well, it's been a while since this was posted, but I thought this might be the best spot to ask some questions.
How does act relate to the current concept of energy? Is act thought to be transferable and transformable the way the energy is?
Is act itself a substance the way that matter is? As in, would it be correct to say that rats and cats are made of act, and that therefore rats and cats are made of the same "stuff" that God is? Because that does not really sit right with me at all. Or is it more like a mode of existence, so that saying something is in "act" is essentially the same as saying "this thing is real?"
Finally, does potentiality exist as a separate substance to act, or is sort of like a diluted, incomplete version of act? Or does it only exist conceptually as the ability of this or that act to change?
Sorry for the long post, but this has been confusing me for a pretty long time now. Thanks for any answers.