Thursday, February 27, 2014

An exchange with Keith Parsons, Part II


Here I respond to Keith Parsons’ second post.  Jeff Lowder is keeping track of the existing and forthcoming installments in my exchange with Prof. Parsons here.

Keith, thanks for these remarks.  The question we are now considering is: Why would the material universe or anything in it (an electron or a quark, say) require a cause to conserve it in existence?  Your view is that the supposition that it requires one is “gratuitous.”  You write: “Is there anything missing from an electron that would have to be filled in or supplied from outside?  There is nothing in our physical theories that indicates such a lack.”

Now, this assumes that physical theory gives us an exhaustive description of electrons, quarks, and material reality in general, or at least something near enough to an exhaustive description for present purposes.  For only if we make that assumption would the absence from physical theory of a reference to the need for a conserving cause give us any reason to think a material thing doesn’t require one.  (Compare: The absence of legs from the Mona Lisa would give us reason to believe that the woman it pictures was legless only if we supposed that the portrait captures everything about her that there was to capture -- which, of course, is not the case.)

Now I would say that there is no reason whatsoever to make the assumption in question vis-à-vis physical theory, and in fact decisive reason to reject it.  Nor does one have to be a Scholastic or a theist to agree with me.  Bertrand Russell, for one, agreed at least about that much.  As he wrote:

It is not always realised how exceedingly abstract is the information that theoretical physics has to give.  It lays down certain fundamental equations which enable it to deal with the logical structure of events, while leaving it completely unknown what is the intrinsic character of the events that have the structure… All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes.  But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to—as to this, physics is silent. (My Philosophical Development, p. 13)

Now if physics gives us only the mathematical structure of material reality, then not only does it not tell us everything there is to know about material reality, but it implies that there must be more to material reality than what it tells us.  For there can be no such thing as structure by itself; there must be something which has the structure. 

Nor, even if we could make sense of the idea of structure existing by itself, would physics give us any reason to believe that that is all there is.  To be sure, if there are features of physical reality susceptible of the mathematical description to which physics limits itself (which, as the success of physics shows, there surely are) then physics has a good shot at capturing them.  But if there are features of reality that cannot be captured by those methods, physics is guaranteed not to capture them.  So, that physical theory doesn’t tell us such-and-such really doesn’t mean much where metaphysics is concerned, because its very methods guarantee that it will not capture certain aspects of reality even if they are there.

Nor, contrary to a common fallacy, does the predictive success of physics’ methods give us any reason whatsoever to believe that there are unlikely to be features of reality that cannot be captured by its methods.  As I have said elsewhere, to assume this is like assuming that the success of metal detectors shows that there are unlikely to be features of reality that cannot be captured using metal detectors; or it is like the drunk’s argument that his lost car keys are unlikely to be anywhere else but under the lamppost, since, after all, that is where the light is and where he has already found his lost wallet and sunglasses. 

So, physics is of its very nature incomplete.  It requires interpretation within a larger metaphysical framework, and absolutely every appeal to “what physics tells us” presupposes such a metaphysical framework, implicitly if not explicitly.  This is as true of the appeals made by naturalists and atheists as it is true of the views of Scholastics.  So, physical theory is simply not going to settle issues like the one in question.  The issue is metaphysical and can in principle only be settled via metaphysical argumentation.

Now, the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, for metaphysical reasons that have nothing essentially to do with natural theology, maintains that any possible material reality will have to have an actuality/potentiality structure.  The reasons have to do with the very preconditions of affirming, contra Parmenidean arguments, the reality of change and of multiplicity.  Neither change nor multiplicity, the Scholastic argues, can coherently be denied; and neither can be made sense of unless between actuality and nothingness there is a middle ground of potency or potentiality.  Now, when the actuality/potentiality distinction is worked out, it implies that every finite substance is a compound of essence and existence (with essence being a kind of potentiality and existence a kind of actuality) and that every material substance in particular is a compound of substantial form and prime matter (with substantial form corresponding to actuality and prime matter to potentiality). 

Obviously not every reader will agree with or even be familiar with these ideas.  But there are serious arguments for them, arguments which I have defended at length and against all the standard objections in my book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.  And when their implications are worked out, it turns out that nothing composite in these ways can exist on its own even for an instant.  For instance, prime matter is pure potentiality for the taking on of form, and qua pure potentiality has no actuality of its own.  In mind-independent reality, then, it can exist only as informed by a substantial form.  The substantial form of a purely material thing, though, is, apart from matter, a mere abstraction.  In mind-independent reality, then, it can exist only as instantiated in prime matter.  But this leaves us with a vicious metaphysical circle unless there is something outside the composite that accounts for the parts being combined.  And the regress this threatens to generate can in principle be terminated only by that which is in no way a composite of actuality and potentiality -- something which is pure actuality devoid of potentiality.

This is compressed, obviously, and much more could be said both in the way of working out the background metaphysics (as I have done in the book just referred to) and in the way of spelling out the arguments for the necessity of a sustaining cause and defending them against objections (as I have done in my American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways”).  But this much suffices to show that there is nothing gratuitous about the idea of the need for a conserving cause.  It has a serious metaphysical motivation, and a motivation that is independent of natural theology, even if it ultimately has implications for natural theology.

120 comments:

Philothumper said...

The vicious circularity only seems to arise when we try to account for a thing's matter or form in terms of the other. But, why do that? Why can't the ultimate explanation for why a form instantiates in a parcel of matter be that it has to, of necessity?

Kiel said...

To put it simply, forms do not have any causal power:
"The substantial form of a purely material thing, though, is, apart from matter, a mere abstraction."

So necessarily, something has to instantiate a form in a parcel of matter. For example, a recipe doesn't make food appear on the table. Someone must instantiate the recipe in the ingredients.

zmikecuber said...

I hope to buy Scholastic Metaphysics. That should be good.

Out of curiousity, is there any way I can read Existential Inertia and the Five Ways without like paying $30?

Jonathan Garcia said...

Hello Dr. Feser, this is totally off-topic, but i hope i can get a response.

I am starting my studies in philosophy here in my country México, and as you would expect, to hold to christian theism is considered to be almost laughable, and thomism (and any non-modern philosophy) it is not very well respected.

So i would like to know, in order to have a good theistic philosophical ground, which books would you recommend me? (Of course, 'Aquinas' is in my reading list)

Again, i hope i can get a response. God bless and thank you for your encouraging work

Philothumper said...

But, if a substantial form were to be instantiated out of necessity, it wouldn't need any causal powers since it'd simply come instantiated.

Mr. Green said...

Philothumper: But, if a substantial form were to be instantiated out of necessity, it wouldn't need any causal powers since it'd simply come instantiated.

And there's your answer: if forms could exist "just because", then every form would be instantiated — the universe would be full of everything everywhere all the time. Which of course it isn't.

SR said...

I have been wondering if the requirement for accounting for the actual/potential nature of material reality could be done by assigning potentiality to form, and actuality to, well, actuality, i.e., Pure Act, i.e., God. This does away with the need to postulate the existence of prime matter. It also makes the theistic idea of God's sustenance more obvious. I would also say it is more understandable, in that we have in our thinking an example of potential form being made actual. While I am not thinking of the Pythagorean Theorem, it is, for me, only potential form, but when I am thinking it, it is actualized form. By analogy, then, things remain in existence as long as God thinks them.

John Moore said...

If we think about time as the fourth dimension of spacetime, similar to length, width and height, then what does that do to our considerations of actuality and potentiality?

When we see a thing changing in time, that's just like us viewing a long thing at a different point along its length.

I wonder how the modern Thomists deal with this idea.

Philothumper said...

Mr. Green: That'd be true if all forms enjoyed that necessary instantiation, but we only need one to have a counter-example to Feser's claim. But, I think I figured it out. Check this out:

*Something* must explain why two distinct viz., a for its matter -- are united together, and we can only say this something is one of three things:

1. The form or its matter in isolation from the other.
2. The form & its matter in conjunction with one another.
3. Something other than the form and its matter.

Since (1) is impossible because neither a form nor its matter exist apart from the other, and (2) is impossible because cause logically precedes effect, and the conjunction of form with matter cannot logically precede itself, (3) must explain why form and matter unite.

Ismael said...

"There is nothing in our physical theories that indicates such a lack."

As a physicist with some modest knowledge of philosophy I find this reply from Parsons indeed odd.

A wavefunction that describes an electron and gives ALL the physical information about the electron (if we deny the possibility of hidden variable theories which are indeed problematic) gives and electron in a certain state and (possibly) how it will evolve in time (if for example interacts with a field.

Indeed as Russel says in your quote, this does NOT tell us anything about the "intrinsic" meaning of an electron.

Field Theory views an electron as a 'ripple' (a wavem, an excitation) of a field, but the question is if this is indeed so or it is only a mathematical construct.

Indeed the meaning of the wavefunction itself, beyond what we can calculate from it, is elusive and there are SEVERAL different opinions about it (Copenhagen interpretation, Bohmian, Many World, etc..)

Feynmann who had little time for philosophy recognized the problem and avoided the question alltogether saying "just do the calculations".


Indeed as you write prof. Feser:

"Nor [...] does the predictive success of physics’ methods give us any reason whatsoever to believe that there are unlikely to be features of reality that cannot be captured by its methods. "


Actually this becomes more and more true the more fundamental physics gets.

Field Theory and especially Quantum Electrodynamics, make EXCELLENT prediction (the best tested theory ever, according to many scientists), but while the CALCULATIONS provide us with excellent results, makes ONTOLOGICAL answers very elusive, if not impossible to answer.

After all Field Theory is a mathematical theory (of course grounded on physics and experiments not just pure abstraction), but what EXACTLY happens is sometimes hard to say.

Usually Feynman diagrams are used to 'picture' field theory, but these diagrams are Feynman diagrams are pictorial representations of the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles.

Some scientists argue (very poorly) they also represent physical reality, but I think such ideas can be easily dismisses: the very meaning of the objects (the arrows that represent quantum states) have pure mathematical meaning, in the end.

So quantum field theory is a great tool (maybe the greatest in physics!) to calculate various observables and make predictions of physical nature, but ontologically it's very lacking.

If we go to unproven theories (like String Theory) matters get only worse... that is why Krauss and Hawking's explanations in their books were akin to dancing on top of a pin...


These kind of considerations, by the way, are common also in introductory books on quantum mechanics, that often discuss, albeit briefly to focus on the math, the 'meaning' of wavefunctions.

So I'll quote a phrase I have read in more than one book on QM (and I think it comes from Feynman): you do not understand quantum mechanics, you just DO quantum mechanics.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that you could create a model that requires additional energy to make a system work.

For instance a model showing that there is an external energy source required contradicting the First Law of Thermodynamics in a closed system.

Of course, doing this might run foul of the razor.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan Garcia: Jacques Maritain's Introduction to Philosophy is a good read. You may find it easier after you've read Feser's Aquinas. It may have been translated into Spanish; I don't know.

I also think The Last Superstition is a slightly easier read for a beginner than Aquinas.

The important thing is to remember that the good arguments for theism are based on Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics. The bad ones allow atheists their materialist metaphysics -- and therefore, I think, fail. Learn, memorise and understand the arguments for formal and final causes. Try and think of your own arguments against them, and of course look up the counter-arguments that have been made online. Get into online debates if you like, as a practice.

I can assure you that some, maybe a majority, of your professors will loathe Aristotle, because of what he stands for, and because of the theological and moral consequences of his philosophy. A tremendous amount of (failed) effort has gone into trying to dismantle his metaphysics over the past 400 years. So you need to be ready.

But I think The Last Superstition would be your best starting point.

I wish I'd known about Aristotle and St Thomas when I started university. Good luck!

David T said...

I wish I'd known about Aristotle and St Thomas when I started university. Good luck!

Amen, Anonymous. I was a physics major in college but I took a number of philosophy classes, looking for answers to the big questions - or at least an acknowledgement that the big questions were worth asking. They were all unsatisfying, as they were either dominated by politics or restricted themselves to small-ball questions. Academic philosophy seemed intimidated by the hard sciences, and refrained from asking the truly important questions for fear of being laughed at.

It wasn't until years later when I discovered Aristotle, Aquinas and classical philosophy on my own that my education really began. The hard part is overcoming the modernist prejudice against genuine philosophy that we absorb as part of modern culture; for me, it was Kierkegaard that finally opened classical philosophy to me, but were Feser around and writing back then, it could have been him.

Greg said...

I would say just keep picking out things to read. Many contemporary philosophers don't like Aristotle, and certainly not Aquinas. But honestly, they will largely take pot shots at them.

One of my philosophy professors claimed that Descartes' preservation argument improved on Scholastic arguments because it dealt with preservation rather than just generation! He thought that Aquinas et al. employed a temporal regress in arguments like the Second Way.

The same professor said that William Harvey, in his account of the circulation of blood, banished teleology latent in Aristotelian metaphysics. He said that Harvey realized that there was not a purpose of the heart but that the heart was a pump. But of course, to say that the heart is a "pump" is to identify a higher-level feature and end of the heart. Harvey realized that; his methodology was derived from Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, and he himself speculated about the final cause of the heart.

Thomas Vaughan said...

Dear Professor Feser,

Professor Parsons in the piece to which you respond here explicitly admits his scientific realism, and he spends a few sentences defending it.

I have long wanted to see how you view the divide between the various instrumentalisms and scientific realism.

It seems to me that one cannot know that any electron exists, regardless of how useful the idea of the electron might be.

Scott said...

@John Moore:

"I wonder how the modern Thomists deal with this idea."

Well, we'll see how Ed deals with it when we read the third chapter of his forthcoming book.

Anonymous said...

Johnathan Garcia

Like perhaps several of the other readers here, my university education leaned heavily on neo-Humean empiricism, and favoured authors such as Mackie and Blackburn. Arguments for the existence of god were dismissed in the first year as part of an intro. course, and the department was so obviously Marxist or Rawlsian in its political leanings, that anything other than naturalism would have just been dismissed as anachronistic (I exaggerate a bit - but not much). Interestingly, my favourite lecturer was the department's only Aristotelian scholar.

My advice would be to read the following introductions (none of which I sadly read at university): Clarke's book 'The One and the Many', Carlson's 'Understanding Our Being' (his dictionary 'Words of Wisdom' is also excellent).

McGlynn and Farley's 'A Metaphysics of Being and God' was excellent and Klubbertanz' 'Introduction to the Philosophy of Being', whilst more challenging. was also very useful.

After this there's loads of great stuff: anything by Feser , Oderberg, Wippel and Owens. Whilst Oderberg, Owens and Wippel can be difficult, Feser's TLA and Aquinas can be read right away with much profit.

I cannot over-state how valuable I have found the writings of Eleonore Stump - I have read her 'Aquinas' and 'Wandering in Darkness', and both are awesome.

I hope these are useful and good luck.

DavidM said...

@Philothumper:
"*Something* must explain why two distinct viz., a for its matter -- are united together, and we can only say this something is one of three things:
1. The form or its matter in isolation from the other.
2. The form & its matter in conjunction with one another.
3. Something other than the form and its matter.
Since (1) is impossible because neither a form nor its matter exist apart from the other, and (2) is impossible because cause logically precedes effect, and the conjunction of form with matter cannot logically precede itself, (3) must explain why form and matter unite."

I don't understand. For what claim (of Feser's?) is this supposed to be a counter-example?

DavidM said...

@Kiel:
"To put it simply, forms do not have any causal power:"

They certainly do!

"The substantial form of a purely material thing, though, is, apart from matter, a mere abstraction."

Hmmm... But what is a "purely material thing," unless pure matter? But no such thing exists.

"So necessarily, something has to instantiate a form in a parcel of matter. For example, a recipe doesn't make food appear on the table. Someone must instantiate the recipe in the ingredients."

So your conclusion is that a recipe can't exist apart from food that instantiates it? Sounds rather far-fetched.

Scott said...

@DavidM:

Philothumper is addressing Ed's statement that the inability of form and matter to exist independently "leaves us with a vicious metaphysical circle unless there is something outside the composite that accounts for the parts being combined." I believe the argument to which you're replying is offered in support of that statement, not as a counterexample.

Gary B said...

I am fully willing to admit when my simple mind is likely at fault, and I'm afraid this is one of those situations.

In what way is God the cause of a form's instantiation in prime matter? Efficient cause? If this is the case, how is this not the explanation of generation and not preservation? Doesn't the efficient cause of something imply a change? If God instantiated a simple ball and nothing else, the generation would be an obvious change but beyond that I'm not sure I see the need for an efficient cause (because the ball would never change).

As an aside I figure the ball's formal cause is its substantial form, its material cause is prime matter, and its final cause is to give glory to God.

DavidM said...

Question 2. Could you tell us where in your writings or in someone else’s that we can find what you take to be the strongest criticisms of the Scholastic arguments for the doctrine of divine conservation?

The substance of Parsons' reply: "Good question... My view of divine conservation is that it is rather plainly a gratuitous notion."

What I find interesting here is that Parsons doesn't even attempt to answer the question. Of course he replies (this time without being a complete culus), but from his reply we can tentatively infer that his actual reply (in response to the question) should be: "No, I can't tell you that, and I'm not even aware of what "the Scholastic arguments for the doctrine of divine conservation" are, never mind having some idea of what are the strongest criticisms of them... It just seems to me that this so-called 'divine conservation' (like, whateva it's actually supposed to be!) is rather plainly a gratuitous notion."

Which leaves me in much wonderment. Has this guy no professional pride? No scholarly integrity? Didn't it matter to him, before he went arrogantly shooting off his mouth (in public!), whether he actually knew what he's talking about? Does he not care about being honest about whether he knows what he's talking about? Has he no shame? It's really quite scandalous when a guy who should be a philosophical role model and mentor for his students appears to have such a vicious, unphilosophical character.

But then again, maybe he was just having a really bad day... or week/month/year/whatever.

At least we can benefit from the object lesson: "Hence it was fitting that the Law should be given at such a time as would be appropriate for the overcoming of man's pride. For man was proud of two things, viz. of knowledge and of power. He was proud of his knowledge, as though his natural reason could suffice him for salvation: and accordingly, in order that his pride might be overcome in this matter, man was left to the guidance of his reason without the help of a written law: and man was able to learn from experience that his reason was deficient, since about the time of Abraham man had fallen headlong into idolatry and the most shameful vices." (ST I-II.98.6)

Anonymous said...

Professor Feser,

Even though it was just an analogy, Professor Parsons' comparison between divine conservation and elan vital seems like it has a certain amount of plausibility. Could you explain why you think that the analogy is misleading?

DavidM said...

Anonymous (whom I hereby dub 'Vital') wrote: "Even though it was just an analogy, Professor Parsons' comparison between divine conservation and elan vital seems like it has a certain amount of plausibility. Could you explain why you think that the analogy is misleading?"

Okay, Vital (or supply your own name): if the analogy is plausible, why not start by spelling it out:

"Elan vital is supposed to be...
Biologists believed in it because...
It was found to be explanatorily otiose because...

Divine conservation is...
Philosophers believed in it because...
It seems to be explanatorily otiose, as in the case of elan vital, because..."

Scott said...

@Gary B:

"In what way is God the cause of a form's instantiation in prime matter? Efficient cause?"

Yes.

"If this is the case, how is this not the explanation of generation and not preservation?"

The explanation of generation deals only with a cause in fieri. A cause in esse is needed in order to explain why something continues to exist. The basic reason is that if the nature of X were sufficient to explain why X exists (why the essence of X is joined to an act of existence), then X would be self-explanatory and would exist of its own nature, no explanation would be needed for its coming into existence, and the universe would be full of Xs.

This chapter of George Hayward Joyce is where I generally refer people for further discussion of this point. The heart of the matter is explicated on pp. 60-63.

Gary Black said...

Scott,

Thank you. That distinction is very helpful. Also, your source is very interesting and I think I will have a good time going over it. It was nice to hear that my problem is something that he believes most people naturally consider.

I think the crux of the argument he describes is "That which even for a single instant is the sufficient reason of its own existence is self-existent. But a nature which is capable of self-existence needs not to wait for the action of an efficient cause in order to exist." The consequences of this I can see plainly follow.

The first sentence is a definition so the second one is the real argument. I'll have to ponder on it some more for although for a necessary being what he says is obvious, I'm not sure I follow when it comes to a being whose nature is sufficient for its existence.

Once again thank you for your help.

After thinking about it for about quite a while, the answer only comes to me as I'm posting my response. I'll leave it up there as record of my trouble but I'd also like to summarize what I believe below.

When I consider just the form of this hypothetical substance and not a particular instance, it makes it more obvious why if its nature was ever self-existent it would be eternal. Then again, since a form cannot exist alone in a mind-independent reality, there would never be an opportunity for it to exist outside of some instance robbing me of my thought experiment. Ugh. Perhaps I am back to square one; perhaps not. Either way I should stop rambling in this comment and proving myself to be a fool!

Scott said...

@Gary Black:

Good, I'm glad you find Joyce helpful. I certainly do, and I recommend him unreservedly. His book on logic is quite good too.

"The first sentence is a definition so the second one is the real argument. I'll have to ponder on it some more for although for a necessary being what he says is obvious, I'm not sure I follow when it comes to a being whose nature is sufficient for its existence."

A being whose nature is sufficient to guarantee its existence is a necessary being; that's exactly the point. And such a being can't come into existence, but must exist ab aeterno. Anything that was brought into being doesn't qualify.

Debilis said...

I'd expected to see more in the response about the fact that this was the entire list of "best arguments", and that much of it was digression.

I wouldn't fault Parsons for that in itself. But he's boldly dismissed all of philosophy of religion as fraud (which is to strongly insinuate that his position has been obviously and demonstrably proved).

That being the case, he really needs a stronger case than his own incredulity and a request for an argument. That by is own admission, doesn't support his claims.

Jonathan Garcia said...

Thank you for your responses! God bless.

Robert Oerter said...

"Now if physics gives us only the mathematical structure of material reality, then not only does it not tell us everything there is to know about material reality, but it implies that there must be more to material reality than what it tells us. "

My question is about the "more" that is implied. Does this "more" have any empirical content?

If so, then it would seem to be a part of physics, and physicists will (eventually) discover it.

If not, then it seems to amount to nothing more than gratuitous additional assumptions, with no way to determine if they are true or false.

Anonymous said...

@Oerter

As I'm sure you are aware, these exchanges had a length limit. So some ideas and claims aren't fully developed. Also, re-read the bit after "Now, the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, for metaphysical reasons that have nothing essentially to do with natural theology, maintains that any possible material reality will have to have an actuality/potentiality structure."

There's this bit from an older post. This is in regards to dualism, but I think it applies here:

"“But doesn’t that make dualism unfalsifiable?” If “unfalsifiable” means “not subject to rational evaluation and criticism,” then no, of course it isn’t unfalsifiable. Metaphysical arguments, like mathematical arguments, are perfectly susceptible of rational analysis and refutation, even if, like mathematical arguments, such analysis does not involve the weighing of probabilities, the comparison of alternative empirical hypotheses, etc. If “unfalsifiable” means instead “not subject to refutation via empirical scientific research,” then yes, dualism is unfalsifiable in that sense. But so is mathematics, and yet that doesn’t detract from its status as a rational field of investigation."

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/12/churchland-on-dualism-part-iii.html

Anonymous said...

@Oerter

As I'm sure you are aware, these exchanges had a length limit. So some ideas and claims aren't fully developed. Also, re-read the bit after "Now, the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, for metaphysical reasons that have nothing essentially to do with natural theology, maintains that any possible material reality will have to have an actuality/potentiality structure."

There's this bit from an older post. This is in regards to dualism, but I think it applies here:

"“But doesn’t that make dualism unfalsifiable?” If “unfalsifiable” means “not subject to rational evaluation and criticism,” then no, of course it isn’t unfalsifiable. Metaphysical arguments, like mathematical arguments, are perfectly susceptible of rational analysis and refutation, even if, like mathematical arguments, such analysis does not involve the weighing of probabilities, the comparison of alternative empirical hypotheses, etc. If “unfalsifiable” means instead “not subject to refutation via empirical scientific research,” then yes, dualism is unfalsifiable in that sense. But so is mathematics, and yet that doesn’t detract from its status as a rational field of investigation."

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/12/churchland-on-dualism-part-iii.html

Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,

The way I understand it is that physics only deals with those aspects of reality that are measurable and subject to mathematical abstraction that represent those measurements.

I don't think that realm of knowledge captures all of reality. Do you? A great deal of our knowledge presupposes measurable objects. But I don't think all of our knowledge can be reduced to what can be quantified and measured.

Cheers,
Daniel

DavidM said...

@Robert wrote:

[quote]"Now if physics gives us only the mathematical structure of material reality, then not only does it not tell us everything there is to know about material reality, but it implies that there must be more to material reality than what it tells us."
My question is about the "more" that is implied. Does this "more" have any empirical content?

I think the most to the point answer to this question is that there is no way to even account for "any empirical content" without this "more." As far as I'm aware, physics does not provide us with any theory of "empirical content" as such.

DavidM said...

let me try this again:

Robert Oerter wrote:
[blockquote]"Now if physics gives us only the mathematical structure of material reality, then not only does it not tell us everything there is to know about material reality, but it implies that there must be more to material reality than what it tells us."

My question is about the "more" that is implied. Does this "more" have any empirical content?[/blockquote]

I think the most to-the-point answer to this question is this: there is no way to even account for any "empirical content" without appealing to this "more." As far as I'm aware, physics does not provide us with any theory of "empirical content" as such.

DavidM said...

oops: angle brackets, not square brackets - maybe next time!

Tony said...

have been wondering if the requirement for accounting for the actual/potential nature of material reality could be done by assigning potentiality to form, and actuality to, well, actuality, i.e., Pure Act, i.e., God. This does away with the need to postulate the existence of prime matter.

SR, I think that this undermines the whole basis of the form / potency / act concepts to begin with. What Aristotle noted and explained was how there could be a "something" that was in some sense the same before a change and after a change - a substrate that persisted through the change. A reason we could say that "the ball changed" rather than "we have a ball, and later we have a flat object, but there is no bearing on each other." Matter is that substrate that persists through the change.

Form cannot answer for the need. If a thing is a sphere in virtue of "roundness", and you smash it so that it is flat and in 100 pieces, it cannot become flat in virtue of roundness, nor can the roundness ITSELF become flat. There has to be a something else that is other than the roundness, that answers to the question "in virtue of what is it still a "this thing" even though it ceases to be round and becomes flat?" The answer is, "in virtue of matter." The form roundness simply cannot be the answer.

Anonymous said...

So fundamentally, you would be saying that the only thing that is real is matter itself? But what is matter? You can't define matter at any level without form of some sort. Even at the smallest level. Why would matter in its most basic aspects be privileged?

Cheers,
Daniel

SR said...

Tony,

I don't see this at all. What remains the same when a ball is squished flat is the material it was made of, say rubber. But rubber is also a form. When there was a round ball, there was a round form, with a subform of rubber material, which has subforms of molecules, etc. But it is form all the way down, until one gets to the ultimate physical particles. So the answer to "what remains the same" is the proximate matter, which is always another form. And as I see it there is no need to provide a prime matter for the most elemental particles other than the act of existence.

Kiel said...

DavidM said...

@Kiel:
"To put it simply, forms do not have any causal power:"

They certainly do!


Perhaps I should have been technically precise: the formal cause is not the efficient cause. On the other hand, the book Scott linked to about per se causation might show I'm confused -- is substantial form the efficient cause of an accidental form?


"So necessarily, something has to instantiate a form in a parcel of matter. For example, a recipe doesn't make food appear on the table. Someone must instantiate the recipe in the ingredients."

So your conclusion is that a recipe can't exist apart from food that instantiates it? Sounds rather far-fetched.


This example was simply to illustrate the form-matter composition cannot be instantiated by the form itself; that the composition requires an efficient cause. It was not intended to be read any further.

Anonymous said...

Tony, As I understand it, there is no such thing as "a prime matter" in Aristotelian thought. Prime matter is simply a term to denote what individuates a form that has been actualized.

Looking at your post to SR again, I believe you were offering a criticism of his ideas, and I interpreted it as an endorsement.

Have I understood you?

Cheers,
Daniel

Tony said...

What remains the same when a ball is squished flat is the material it was made of, say rubber. But rubber is also a form. When there was a round ball, there was a round form, with a subform of rubber material, which has subforms of molecules, etc. But it is form all the way down, until one gets to the ultimate physical particles. So the answer to "what remains the same" is the proximate matter, which is always another form.

SR, that is not the way Aristotle views substantial form. If you have an oak tree, it has the form of "oak" which informs all of the matter. If you take a leaf and look at it under a microscope, it has what may be called "forms" of carbon dioxide molecules, which also have "forms" of carbon atoms...down to the "ultimate physical particles". But Aristotle would say that while the matter is actually the matter of the oak tree, it has only one substantial form, "oak", and the so-called "forms" of molecules and atoms and protons are not real and actual simply speaking, they are only virtually present. Therefore, the "what" that ceases to be an oak when you burn the oak tree down cannot be the forms of carbon and so on.

Now, I am sure that you might argue this is not necessary to Aristotle's notion of form and matter, but it's not like he just took a stab at it without considering the options.

Tony, As I understand it, there is no such thing as "a prime matter" in Aristotelian thought. Prime matter is simply a term to denote what individuates a form that has been actualized.

Depends on what "no such thing" is intended to convey. It is not necessary to posit "prime matter" as being actually existing in itself and not "in" some completed substance in order to hold what I said above. It is necessary, to be true to Aristotle, to say that the substrate which persists under a change from condition not-X to condition X is a subject which is notionally distinct from X-ness. That subject has to be in potency to harboring X-ness. And, nothing in Aristotle is in the least compatible with the notion that the subject so in potency is to be understood formally, such as Y-ness.

In your example, it is inaccurate to say that the form "rubberyness" is what is in potency to the form flatness. Rubberyness cannot become flat, for if it did then EVERY RUBBERY THING that instantiates rubberyness would have to be flat at that time. That's what it would have to mean for rubberyneess to "become" flat. And even then, they wouldn't be flat in virtue of being rubbery (or it would have been impossible in the past for a rubbery thing to be not-flat).

Looking at your post to SR again, I believe you were offering a criticism of his ideas, and I interpreted it as an endorsement.

An endorsement of...what? I was criticizing SR's comments as being opposed to Aristotle's basic distinctions for form and matter, potency and act.

So fundamentally, you would be saying that the only thing that is real is matter itself?

Not at all. Natural substances are real, simply speaking. They are real in virtue of form and matter, but more on account of form than on account of matter.

Step2 said...

Tony: Natural substances are real, simply speaking.
Dr. Feser: God creates things out of nothing precisely in the act of conserving them in being, and apart from His continual causal action they would instantly be annihilated.

As a start, I don’t know of anything besides certain quantum effects that could be characterized as annihilation. There are plenty of examples of extensive transformation and destruction but to "be not" without any trace in an instant just doesn't happen on a macroscopic scale as far as I can tell.

While act and potency have very strong grounding in experience, Aristotle's system seems to quickly run into the weeds with prime matter - which has pure potentiality without any actuality, but as a receptacle for form it is supposed to be "actual" enough to be distinct from pure form.

Tony said...

Step2, we should not expect to see anything in nature provide an example of annihilation. The entire panoply of Aristotle's thesis starts with natural changes, which are changes of a "this" into a "that". Which is, by definition, not like creation nor annihilation. God's act of creation is non-natural whole and entire.

Aristotle's system seems to quickly run into the weeds with prime matter - which has pure potentiality without any actuality, but as a receptacle for form it is supposed to be "actual" enough to be distinct from pure form.

It is, of course, extraordinarily difficult to wrap our brains around the notion of prime matter - that is to say, matter without respect to any of its formal actuation. One reason for this is that it is impossible to have an instance of it in hand. Another, even better reason is that knowing is by reason of apprehending forms, and matter without forms is thus not knowable except indirectly.

Pure nothing isn't "in potential" to form, because it isn't, period. What Aristotle means to do, then, is to posit another way of understanding being, one that lies between "it is" and "it is not" (with the latter being only understood by negation simply), another manner of being which isn't merely another kind of being, but being in the most limited sense. Since that which is known is known in virtue of actuality, being of this sort is the least knowable of all, it is knowable only by reason of what it CAN become, ie by reason of that which it is potential to.

So, while I agree that Aristotle's notion of matter is subject to difficult reading, I don't think that means the difficulty kills the deal.

Anonymous said...

Tony said "Depends on what "no such thing" is intended to convey. It is not necessary to posit "prime matter" as being actually existing in itself and not "in" some completed substance in order to hold what I said above. It is necessary, to be true to Aristotle, to say that the substrate which persists under a change from condition not-X to condition X is a subject which is notionally distinct from X-ness. That subject has to be in potency to harboring X-ness. And, nothing in Aristotle is in the least compatible with the notion that the subject so in potency is to be understood formally, such as Y-ness."

I agree with this completely and also what you said in the previous post above. It is what I meant when I said that there can be no instance of prime matter that somehow exists outside of some formal structure. It is simply the potentiality of an actual substance to change into another substance.

I was not the one who gave the example of "rubberyness" as potentiality to "flatness".

Cheers,
Daniel

Step2 said...

Step2, we should not expect to see anything in nature provide an example of annihilation.

Only if God doesn't have a choice about conserving things in existence, in which case existential inertia is equivalent to its divine counterpart.

God's act of creation is non-natural whole and entire.

If so it is a bit silly to think you can explain it through natural changes involving an unknowable substance, correct?

Tony said...

If so it is a bit silly to think you can explain it through natural changes involving an unknowable substance, correct?

It might be silly to think we could explain it altogether, adequately, because of course we don't know how to do creation and annihilation, we are not God.

And it might be silly to think we could explain it in terms of natural changes anyway, since it is utterly apart from natural changes.

And it might be silly to think we could explain anything at all through an utterly unknowable substance, because that would be explaining the unknown by way of the unknown, which is kind of the opposite of explanation.

And it might be silly to think that a substance not known perfectly was a substance not known at all. Or that something not known directly could not be known indirectly.

Apart from all of these, I am not sure what silliness you are pointing to.

SR said...

Tony said...

SR, that is not the way Aristotle views substantial form. If you have an oak tree, it has the form of "oak" which informs all of the matter. If you take a leaf and look at it under a microscope, it has what may be called "forms" of carbon dioxide molecules, which also have "forms" of carbon atoms...down to the "ultimate physical particles". But Aristotle would say that while the matter is actually the matter of the oak tree, it has only one substantial form, "oak", and the so-called "forms" of molecules and atoms and protons are not real and actual simply speaking, they are only virtually present. Therefore, the "what" that ceases to be an oak when you burn the oak tree down cannot be the forms of carbon and so on.

I am not trying to be true to Aristotle. What I am getting at is, though he was right to make the actual/potential distinction, I think he was wrong to assign actuality to form and potential to matter. In doing so, he had to postulate prime matter, which, as you say to step2, is a difficult thing to understand. I suggest it is difficult because it is not necessary. It would also appear that by making this switch one can also avoid talk of "virtual forms". So far, no one has shown me why this alternative basis to a philosophy of nature is unworkable.

Tony said...

SR, the root concept that matter helps account for is a persisting sustrate through a change. Form doesn't explain that.

For accidental change, like an apple changing from green to red, the form greenness ceases to be present and the form redness comes to be present. In order to say that a change in some thing took place - rather than simply saying green was annihilated and red was created - is to propose some subject IN WHICH the form greenness or redness can inhere, something of a different character than the accidental form.

The same is true of substantial form: in order to say that the rabbit's body became part of the wolf, you have to posit a something that is distinct from rabbitness and from wolfness, that persists through the event.

By suggesting that it be some form other than the substantial form, you deny what Aristotle means by substantial form, for in his terms a natural thing, a coherent, integral ONE UNITARY THING, has one substantial form only. The rabbit cannot both have rabbitness as its substantial form AND have carbon, oxygen, water, hemoglobin, etc as substantial forms at the same time, or it fails to be a one coherent thing. If "rabbit" correctly answers the question "what is it", then "carbon" does not answer the question correctly.

Now, maybe Aristotle is out to lunch on substantial form anyway. But if so, then it is unlikely that he even got the notion "form" right to begin with, and even THAT notion would have to be scrapped, (pretty much as the moderns assume - without making the attempt to grapple with the ramifications thereof).

No, matter is the necessary correlate that runs alongside the notion of form. If you want one, you get the other.

DavidM said...

@Tony and SR:
Tony: "the root concept that matter helps account for is a persisting substrate through a change. Form doesn't explain that."

But perhaps (the act of) *being* could. (The suggestion being that perhaps the Thomistic account of *being* (esse) as the ultimate act of a thing necessary reduces every form to a kind of potency, in which case the necessity of prime matter as principle of potency becomes harder to understand.)


"matter is the necessary correlate that runs alongside the notion of form. If you want one, you get the other."

Then the notion of immaterial forms (e.g., angels) would be necessarily incoherent, would it not? Is that what you want to claim?

SR said...

Tony,

I don't see any difference in explaining persistence when one just swaps "divine sustaining act" for "prime matter". In either view, an accidental change involves a change in the proximate matter. And from what DavidM points out, replacing prime matter with "act of existence" removes the ontological difference between immaterial and material things. In the alternate view, a material thing is just one with subforms of physical particles.

However, in making this switch, there is also the issue of what actualizes, and in both views, only something actual can do so. But it is not the form of the composite that gives it this ability, rather it is that the form has been actualized, which could be said to be, when it has been energized. The concept of prime matter does not allow for this (and so, I would guess, Aristotle assigned "actuality" to form), while the idea of an actual thing being a composite of form and God's sustaining power does.

By suggesting that it be some form other than the substantial form, you deny what Aristotle means by substantial form, for in his terms a natural thing, a coherent, integral ONE UNITARY THING, has one substantial form only. The rabbit cannot both have rabbitness as its substantial form AND have carbon, oxygen, water, hemoglobin, etc as substantial forms at the same time, or it fails to be a one coherent thing. If "rabbit" correctly answers the question "what is it", then "carbon" does not answer the question correctly.

This objection doesn't make sense to me. Carbon, and cells and lungs, etc. are a part of the answer to "what is it" when asked of a living rabbit. It distinguishes a living rabbit from a statue of a rabbit, for example.

To put it another way, I am just suggesting that the "one form" of an actual thing is a complex hierarchy. If the top of the hierarchy (e.g. "rabbitness") is de-actualized it ceases to be that thing. But a subordinate piece of the hierarchy can lose its actuality (a cell can die), without the actual thing ceasing to exist.

Tony said...

SR, you are using the term "form" in way totally foreign to what was developed by Plato and Aristotle. Now, that doesn't make your notion in itself a WRONG idea, but it makes it very odd that you would insist on using their term for your idea, when it isn't anything like their idea for the word.

the idea of an actual thing being a composite of form and God's sustaining power does.

This doesn't provide any way of accounting for their being DISTINCT rabbits. If a rabbit consists solely of "rabbitness" being made energized, then there can be no distinct INSTANCES of a rabbit here and there. There is no way to make distinct this one from that one because they are both simply rabbitness actualized.


This objection doesn't make sense to me. Carbon, and cells and lungs, etc. are a part of the answer to "what is it" when asked of a living rabbit. It distinguishes a living rabbit from a statue of a rabbit, for example.

And again, this just rejects outright everything Aristotle established about substantial form. Listen, if you don't like Aristotle's idea of form, don't use it. But do us a favor and call your notion something else. Aristotle didn't come to his conclusions about substantial form just on a whim or a guess, you know, he had reasons. For example, your account would leave us without any clear reason to say in answer to "what is it" that it is "a rabbit" rather than "a collection of carbon, oxygen, etc., all organized so as to simulate a rabbit." The understanding of complex entities being essentially different from mere collections of simple things would be gone. As would the clear notion of first substance.

I am just suggesting that the "one form" of an actual thing is a complex hierarchy. If the top of the hierarchy (e.g. "rabbitness") is de-actualized it ceases to be that thing. But a subordinate piece of the hierarchy can lose its actuality (a cell can die), without the actual thing ceasing to exist.

And if someone were to impose a higher form onto many men and make a "state" as a next-level hierarchical being, then the destruction of one or many men in the state would be merely the loss of cells or replaceable organs, merely "parts of the state." Say in as communism.

Tony said...

Then the notion of immaterial forms (e.g., angels) would be necessarily incoherent, would it not? Is that what you want to claim?

DavidM, angels have an essence, but they do not have form-and-matter. They do not undergo "change" in the sense of natural change from which Aristotle takes the initial sense of form and matter. Angels do not move in the way that natural thing move - ie. as a fulfillment of a natural potency, either as a change of location, size, quality, or substance.

Starting from natural change, matter is the necessary correlate of form. The form of the natural thing is more the essence than the matter. Extending beyond natural substances to things that have an essence but no matter, their essence is a "form", but a sense of form that is not natural because it neither inheres in matter nor undergoes natural change. In this way also, we can speak of an angel having a "nature", but this is to use an extended sense of nature because only natural things properly have a nature (only mobile, bodily things, that is). It is more precise to say angels have an essence.

SR said...

Tony,

SR, you are using the term "form" in way totally foreign to what was developed by Plato and Aristotle. Now, that doesn't make your notion in itself a WRONG idea, but it makes it very odd that you would insist on using their term for your idea, when it isn't anything like their idea for the word.

The only difference in my usage is that I do not ascribe energy, or power, that is, the ability to actualize, to form in itself. Of course, an actualized form can actualize. I use the same term because in both their case and in my alternative, it is form that makes something what it is as distinct from other things. Whatever one can say about something (other than whether it is actual), is saying something about its form.

This doesn't provide any way of accounting for their being DISTINCT rabbits. If a rabbit consists solely of "rabbitness" being made energized, then there can be no distinct INSTANCES of a rabbit here and there. There is no way to make distinct this one from that one because they are both simply rabbitness actualized.

I see no difference in ascribing individualization to the actualizing power than from prime matter.

... your account would leave us without any clear reason to say in answer to "what is it" that it is "a rabbit" rather than "a collection of carbon, oxygen, etc., all organized so as to simulate a rabbit." The understanding of complex entities being essentially different from mere collections of simple things would be gone. As would the clear notion of first substance.

No, the form "rabbitness" includes everything one can say about a rabbit. It is its soul, in Aristotle's sense, that is, it includes the imperceptible structures that make something alive. It would include rabbit instincts. The only change to the hylemorphic picture is that I would say that the form of a rabbit channels the actualizing power, rather than wields that power. Such channeling results in digestion and so forth. It is only when the rabbit dies that it becomes a "mere collection" of cells.

The case is different with humans, however. Recall that I said that one could call the actualizing power "God's thinking". In the human case, we have a very weak version of actualizing power, i.e., our rational will.

And if someone were to impose a higher form onto many men and make a "state" as a next-level hierarchical being, then the destruction of one or many men in the state would be merely the loss of cells or replaceable organs, merely "parts of the state." Say in as communism.

Such a state would have to be able to remove rational will from its human subforms, making them non-human. So I don't think you need to worry.

Jeremy Taylor said...

The point of prime matter is it is pure without form; it is pure multiplicity. The indefinite dyad is Pythagorean-Platonic parlance. This allows it to be the ultimate substrate into which form is insubstantiated. It is allows it to be completely undetermined and to be the basis of all determination.

If you dispense with prime matter, then the replacement matter will not be the most basic matter -totally without form, determination, and limit. It will therefore not be pure potentiality.

This is quite basic to the Aristotelian and Platonic perspective; it hasn't been overlooked.

DavidM said...

"If you dispense with prime matter, then the replacement matter will not be the most basic matter -totally without form, determination, and limit. It will therefore not be pure potentiality."

I dare say that's SR's point. And the question remains: why is it necessary to posit prime matter, which is wholly indeterminate - which is in-finite, not in the sense of infinite perfection, but infinite imperfection: utter privation of form, utter lack of any positive ground of intelligibility?

DavidM said...

Tony wrote: "This doesn't provide any way of accounting for their being DISTINCT rabbits. If a rabbit consists solely of "rabbitness" being made energized, then there can be no distinct INSTANCES of a rabbit here and there. There is no way to make distinct this one from that one because they are both simply rabbitness actualized."

SR replied: "I see no difference in ascribing individualization to the actualizing power than from prime matter."

SR's reply invites the question: what is meant by 'the actualizing power'? (Prime matter is supposed to be a principle of individuation, which would seem to be different from an 'actualizing power.')

To Tony: The problem would seem to be that we don't perceive distinct, individual rabbits on the basis of a distinction in their prime matter (by definition this is formally indistinct). Rather we perceive differences in their accidental forms, which (perceptible) forms can be traced back to the causal powers of the (chemical) forms of the parts of the rabbit (not to the prime matter thereof). Real changes can likewise be traced back to the causal powers of the (formal) physical/chemical properties of the integral parts of the rabbit. It seems that SR is taking a very Leibnizian position, so perhaps the thing to do is to explain why Leibniz is wrong.

Jeremy Taylor said...

David M,

why is it necessary to posit prime matter, which is wholly indeterminate - which is in-finite, not in the sense of infinite perfection, but infinite imperfection: utter privation of form, utter lack of any positive ground of intelligibility?

To understand how all created things are a duality between form and matter, the one and the indefinite dyad.

Prime matter represents pure multiplicity, and it is its combination with form draws out all the distinctions inherent in form. If prime matter have had form of some kind it couldn't be this ultimate substrate, one side of this ultimate created duality.

SR said...

@Jeremy,


If you dispense with prime matter, then the replacement matter will not be the most basic matter -totally without form, determination, and limit. It will therefore not be pure potentiality.

This is quite basic to the Aristotelian and Platonic perspective; it hasn't been overlooked.


Yes, but I am saying that one can account for changing things from a different perspective. One does this not by replacing prime matter with some "replacement matter", but with what I call "actualizing power", which is also "totally without form, determination, and limit". And with further analysis, one identifies it with God's creation and sustaining of all things. In doing this, one accomplishes the following:

- there is no need for a second "formlessness" found in all actual things (prime matter AND God's sustenance).
- one removes the ontological distinction between natural and supernatural things -- they are both form/actualization composites.

This is, obviously, a different perspective from Plato's and Aristotle's, and my question is: what makes it unnworkable? What reason or experience rules it out?

@David,
SR's reply invites the question: what is meant by 'the actualizing power'? (Prime matter is supposed to be a principle of individuation, which would seem to be different from an 'actualizing power.')

As to "what is meant by 'the actualizing power'", it is a transcendental: Pure Act. As to individualization, that just means the same form can be actualized on more than one occasion.

Jeremy Taylor said...

This is how actualisation occurs. Matter is passive and does not itself actualise forms. But the things that are actualised are still be a combination of form and matter, and the matter, the ultimate substrate, of creation itself, one side of the basic cosmic duality of form and matter, is prime matter.

Jeremy Taylor said...

- That should have been: That is how actualisation occurs.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Prime matter is the substrate, at least in Platonism, for creation itself. In our world there is a materia secunda, of quality and quantity. And then there is the particular matter of a being. Prime matter is the foundation. It is the formless potential that can receive all forms. If, for example, materia secunda were prime matter, then nothing not bound by the conditions of our world, quality and quantity, could be created. And if some even more specific, corporeal thing were to be prime matter, then the formal aspects of such a thing must be inherent in all created things and this would severely reduce the scope of creation and multiplicity.

I'm not really sure about the distinction between natural and supernatural you are referring to. You would have to ask an Aristotelian.

Tony said...

I see no difference in ascribing individualization to the actualizing power than from prime matter.

The "actualizing power" also makes the angelic essence "to be". That essence determines one angel, because no other angel has a like essence. They are not distinct individually, but distinct by specific difference.

Rabbits are the same species, they have the same essence. If the actualizing power simply actualizes the essence, there is no principle of individuation.

SR, what you want is all the benefits of matter without having matter. Well, it's a nice try, but it doesn't work

Tony said...

As to individualization, that just means the same form can be actualized on more than one occasion.

That doesn't account for the instances being distinct. It doesn't matter at all on accounting for the "whence it comes", i.e. the actualizing power, there still needs to be somewhat THIS rabbit is distinct from that rabbit. That they be rabbity, and that the actualizing power energize them, is not distinct.

The problem would seem to be that we don't perceive distinct, individual rabbits on the basis of a distinction in their prime matter (by definition this is formally indistinct). Rather we perceive differences in their accidental forms, which (perceptible) forms can be traced back to the causal powers of the (chemical) forms of the parts of the rabbit (not to the prime matter thereof). Real changes can likewise be traced back to the causal powers of the (formal) physical/chemical properties of the integral parts of the rabbit.

DavidM, that doesn't solve the problem, it just pushes it under the rug. Why is this instance or white, or fluffy, or warm, or carbonaceous, and watery, etc, different from that instance. If you take identical twins, or even just identical viruses, they are not distinct on account of a difference in the accidental forms or even the "constituent forms", they are distinct but not formally distinct.

SR said...

@Jeremy,

Prime matter is the substrate, at least in Platonism, for creation itself. In our world there is a materia secunda, of quality and quantity. And then there is the particular matter of a being. Prime matter is the foundation. It is the formless potential that can receive all forms. If, for example, materia secunda were prime matter, then nothing not bound by the conditions of our world, quality and quantity, could be created. And if some even more specific, corporeal thing were to be prime matter, then the formal aspects of such a thing must be inherent in all created things and this would severely reduce the scope of creation and multiplicity.

You are just describing things from the Platonist/Aristotelian perspective. You are not showing why my alternative doesn't work. I am not positing some material replacement for prime matter, rather I am positing an immaterial replacement: Pure Act, with the additional change of assigning the role of potential to form. This, as discussed above with Tony, means I am regarding form in a different way than Plato or Aristotle did, but in practice (how we distinguish things) it serves the same role.

@Tony,
The "actualizing power" also makes the angelic essence "to be". That essence determines one angel, because no other angel has a like essence. They are not distinct individually, but distinct by specific difference.

The same can be said of rabbits. No two actual rabbits will have exactly the same form, since there will be differences in their subforms (from different genetic material, one will have eaten one thing, and another something else, etc.)

Rabbits are the same species, they have the same essence. If the actualizing power simply actualizes the essence, there is no principle of individuation.

See above. In actualizing a rabbit, all its subforms are also being actualized, and they will differ.

Things are different if there are no replaceable subforms, however. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that every electron has exactly the same form as all others. Then what makes one electron distinct from all others is that one is actualized on one occasion (has a spatiotemporal location), and the others on different occasions.

SR, what you want is all the benefits of matter without having matter. Well, it's a nice try, but it doesn't work

Yes, that's what I want, but so far I haven't seen why it doesn't work.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Then you are going to have to explain better what you mean. How is your immaterial replacement not a kind of matter? Or how does separation and multiplicity occur without a substrate for them to insubstantiate.

If we take the animal form, how is the rabbit form separated from it without the substrate of specific forms? How are the individual rabbits insubstantiated without the substrate, the matter, of the corporeal world? You can't have an individual, particular rabbit without it having body, location, and all the conditions of the corporeal world, as well as the specific matter of an individual rabbit.

The same goes for prime matter. It is the overall substrate of creation. Your perpsective fails because you are trying to give an explanation for things, using Platonic/Aristotelian terminology, without explaining how you are properly replacing form and matter.

How do you immaterially replace the conditions of our corporeal world and the specific matter of a rabbit and still get an individual rabbit?

Jeremy Taylor said...

There is a fundamental difference between individuation of a specific form and the division of a generic form into specific forms. The former is the individuation of the rabbit form into corporeal, particular rabbits. The latter is the division of the animal form into the rabbit, dog, human, etc. etc., forms.

There is a clear difference between different forms and different individuals. The reason for this is the way the form is combined with different matter. This matter provides the substrate, the grounds for the separation of multiplicity inherent but united in the form. Prime matter is the archetype of that multiplicity - the most fundamental grounds of it. I cannot understand how your immaterial actualisation replaces it.

SR said...

Jeremy,

I believe I've answered all these questions in my responses to Tony. In particular, in my perspective, I use the words 'form' and 'matter' in the same way as they are naively used when speaking of a 'form/matter' composite, as in a rubber ball having a spherical form with rubber as its substrate, or in distinguishing species within a genus, or in distinguishing individuals of a species. The only differences from Aristotle's usage are that (1) it is only at the bottom of the hierarchy of substrates that I replace 'prime matter' with 'actualizing power', and (2) when I say a form by itself (i.e., not actualized) does not have actualizing power. This also means that there is a difference at the top, in that it no longer makes sense to speak of the "form of the Good". Rather, one would just say "Goodness", which, given God's simplicity, means it is identical to "actualizing power".

Thus, ontologically, there is no matter. and, overall, this is an immaterialist ontology. But the word 'material' is still useful to distinguish actualized things with physical particles as their lowest substrate from other actualized things, like human thoughts, or animal instincts, or angels.

I simply fail to see why 'actualizing power' cannot serve to individualize. Can't God make and sustain in existence two of something?

Tony said...

Then what makes one electron distinct from all others is that one is actualized on one occasion (has a spatiotemporal location), and the others on different occasions.

So, one has the "form" of having been actualized at position A, , while the other has the "form" of having been actualized at position B", but other than that they are identical? In virtue of WHAT does a form inhabit a location? Angels don't. And it cannot be the lower level forms, because those lower level ones too (and the lowest level of all) need an account for in virtue of what that they inhabit a place. What, exactly, IS IT that they are doing when they are in A rather than B?

I don't ask these questions expecting a coherent answer, because all you have done so far is to simply assert that "form" and "actualizing agent" can do everything that matter is supposed to supply, but your account doesn't actually seem to account for anything. Except where you just borrow matter's features sub rosa. But that's OK, you go on believing in your version of form and not-matter. Just do us a favor and invent a different word for it so that you don't confuse the unwary.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Two of what? Two of a form would be identical and therefore the same form. This is one of the basic characteristics of a form. There is only such numerical differentiation when it comes to the corporeal level, where individual, particular things are individuated.

Maybe I just don't understand the Aristotelian terminology, but surely prime matter is purely passive and does not actualise anything.

I'm still not completely sure about your framework, but your first paragraph looks a lot like the Platonic position. In Platonism God manifests the one and the indefinite dyad (prime matter). The one contains within it the essential or formal pole of all creation - all the way to the individual, particular forms of corporeal beings. It is the one that is the active aspect of creation - it actualises, but this is ultimately a reflection and prolongation of God's a power and activity, so God, in a sense, is what actualises.

Matter is at all times passive and is just the conditions for the manifestation of multiplicity inherent but completely unified in the one.

SR said...

@Tony,

I did invent another word (phrase): 'actualizing power', though of course this is just another way of saying 'Pure Act'. And I've been quite specific (nothing sub rosa) of how I've been using the words 'matter' and 'material'. I've been using the terms in the same way that an Aristotelian uses them in examples of form/matter composition. But just as an Aristotelian will acknowledge that the 'matter' of an example (like a rubber ball) is itself a form/matter composition, this must eventually bottom out. And there and only there do I use 'matter' differently, namely in saying that there is no such thing as 'prime matter'. In sum, I am using the word 'matter' just as an Aristotelian does as long as it is proximate matter being discussed, and as the word is used naively.

Meanwhile, what you have not done is show how prime matter fulfills any explanatory purpose that actualizing power does not.

So, one has the "form" of having been actualized at position A, , while the other has the "form" of having been actualized at position B", but other than that they are identical?

That's not what I said. What I said was that the form of an electron gets actualized on one occasion, and then on another. So, no, the location of an electron is not a feature of the form of an electron, rather it is a feature of the actualized form.

@Jeremy,
Two of what? Two of a form would be identical and therefore the same form.

Two actualized forms.

Maybe I just don't understand the Aristotelian terminology, but surely prime matter is purely passive and does not actualise anything.

Yes that's Aristotle's view. I am expressing a different view, replacing passive prime matter with actualizing power, and hence removing the power to actualize from form. So it is (unactualized) form that is at all times passive.

I should also point out that to say that God is the highest Form means that one has completely negated the naive use of the word 'form'. God is simple, meaning, has no structure, and -- naively -- 'structure' is just a synonym for 'form'.

DavidM said...

"DavidM, that doesn't solve the problem, it just pushes it under the rug. Why is this instance [of] white, or fluffy, or warm, or carbonaceous, and watery, etc, different from that instance."

To begin with, they are quantitatively distinct.

"If you take identical twins, or even just identical viruses, they are not distinct on account of a difference in the accidental forms or even the "constituent forms", they are distinct but not formally distinct."

No, they clearly are formally distinct. If they weren't, we wouldn't be able to conceive of the difference between them. But we can, ergo etc.

DavidM said...

BTW: I'm really not sure that Aristotle himself actually has any clear view about prime matter, as such.

Scott said...

@SR:

How does your actualizing power differ (if it does) from Aquinas's "act of existence," which actualizes an essence that stands in potency to it?

SR said...

@Scott
How does your actualizing power differ (if it does) from Aquinas's "act of existence," which actualizes an essence that stands in potency to it?

No difference, just referring to the power that acts, rather than to the acts.

By the way, in presenting this alternative, I have been calling it "my view", but I recognize that I cannot prove that it is correct and the Aristotelian incorrect. I just prefer it because I see it as simpler (no mysterious 'prime matter', and removing the ontological difference between natural and supernatural things), and because it seems to me to be more in accord with our naive view of form (as ideas that are potentially actualized). But there may be some reason it doesn't work, which so far I haven't come across.

DavidM said...

@SR:
What distinction do you suppose Aristotle draws between the natural and the super-natural? What text might you be referring to?

SR said...

@DavidM,

Well, maybe I mean the Thomist distinction (my knowledge of A-T is limited, pretty much to what I read in Aquinas). But as I understand it, a natural (or material) object is an actualizing form impressing itself on potential matter, ultimately prime matter, while a supernatural object is a potential form actualized by an act of existence.

Scott said...

@SR:

According to A-T, natural/material objects require acts of existence as well.

SR said...

According to A-T, natural/material objects require acts of existence as well.

Yes, but A-T says they also need prime matter, which is what I am puzzled by. I can see that a complex actualized thing requires proximate matter to undergo an accidental change, but when we get to the most elemental natural things, they would not undergo accidental change (or they would not be elemental), so they just need an act of existence.

Scott said...

@SR:

My point was just that requiring or not requiring an act of existence isn't a distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

SR said...

My point was just that requiring or not requiring an act of existence isn't a distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

Understood.

DavidM said...

@SR:
"as I understand it, a natural (or material) object is an actualizing form impressing itself on potential matter, ultimately prime matter, while a supernatural object is a potential form actualized by an act of existence"

I think you should say "immaterial substance" rather than "supernatural object."

"I can see that a complex actualized thing requires proximate matter to undergo an accidental change, but when we get to the most elemental natural things, they would not undergo accidental change (or they would not be elemental), so they just need an act of existence."

When you say "complex actualized thing" do you mean "composite thing"? - as in composed of matter and form? Why do you refer specifically to accidental change?

DavidM said...

SR's thesis appears to be this:

If there is some most elemental form (or forms) of actual matter, the formal actuality of which is present in (i.e., within the formal actuality of) all other material substances, then since this most basic element of material reality never changes (never loses its intrinsic elementary form of actuality), it can be regarded as immaterial.

How does that sound?

Tony said...

but when we get to the most elemental natural things, they would not undergo accidental change (or they would not be elemental), so they just need an act of existence.

Of course they undergo accidental change: electrons can be excited to a higher ring, or change location, etc.

SR said...

@Tony
Of course [elemental thngs] undergo accidental change: electrons can be excited to a higher ring, or change location, etc.

Well, I don't know that electrons are elemental, but you're right that, regardless, there can be change of location, so I need to correct my phrasing. Perhaps we can say that a thing can undergo three kinds of change:
- existential change (where it comes to be or ceases to be)
- alterational change (where there is some change in its substructure, as when an animal digests food)
- relational change (where the thing's relation to other things changes)

"Accidental change", then, would be either alterational change or relational change. So what I am suggesting is that an elemental thing cannot undergo alterational change, but can undergo relational change. Does that work?


@DavidM
I think you should say "immaterial substance" rather than "supernatural object."

I think I should let someone better informed than me explain the Thomist distinction between material and immaterial things :).

When you say "complex actualized thing" do you mean "composite thing"? - as in composed of matter and form? Why do you refer specifically to accidental change?

No. By "complex" I mean a form that contains subforms. Like a rabbit contains organs, which contain cells, which contain molecules, etc. See above on my (incorrect) use of "accidental change".

SR's thesis appears to be this:

If there is some most elemental form (or forms) of actual matter, the formal actuality of which is present in (i.e., within the formal actuality of) all other material substances, then since this most basic element of material reality never changes (never loses its intrinsic elementary form of actuality), it can be regarded as immaterial.

How does that sound?


Well, not quite. First, see above about my (mis)use of "accidental change". Anyway, my thesis is that an actual elemental form is a composite of its form and an act of existence, rather than, as in A-T, form and prime matter. This means that all contingent things are composites of form and acts of existence. Those we naively call "material things" are just those with a certain kind of elemental subforms. But since the power that performs acts of existence is immaterial, and unactualized forms are immaterial, the ontology as a whole would be classified as immaterialist.

Anonymous said...

These are some thoughts I am attempting to summarize from Benedict Ashley's "The Way toward Wisdom" on the subject of form and matter.

The way I understand it, the act of existence is simply to say that some thing exists. It is actual. It is real.

We come to know first what things are in their actuality. From there, when we observe changes in the actual thing, we come to know its potentiality, both accidental and substantial.

When observe any real thing, we ask
1- Does it exist.
2- How is it defined.
3- What are its properties.
4- Why does it have these properties.

These all define actual beings, that are first and foremost, subject to change, in various ways, to such an extent that substance A could potentially completely change into substance B.

Form, does not just mean shape, as we understand it today. It means any kind of actuality possessed by a changeable thing.

Matter, the way Aristotle uses the term, means any potentiality to change. In this reading, prime matter does not refer to a substance or a substrate. It simply means the potentiality of all substances to change into another substance. Modern science seems to endorse this understanding that all things can change into other things. Even elementary particles come and go. For example, the common understanding of the big bang seems to indicate that in the initial moments, it was capable of becoming all things that now actually exist. But at the same time, all things that actually now exist, were in pure potentiality back then.

So to deny prime matter is to deny pure potentiality. It is to deny the real possibility that all existing things are changeable.

Any notion of prime matter that ascribes some kind of substantial quality to prime matter, is in reality ascribing a certain degree of actuality to it, which in Aristotle's view, it cannot have.

I'm hoping I've been true to his ideas and I hope it may help in this current discussion.

Cheers,
Daniel

SR said...

Daniel,

Consider a snowball. Its form is a sphere, and its matter is snow. But what made it actual? I would say it was the will of the person that made it. Something-in-the-shape-of-a-sphere existed as a potential that the will of the snowball maker made actual, using snow. I think it is a stretch to say that can-be-shaped-into-a-sphere in any way resides in the snow. Of course, it can be shaped into a sphere, but that potentiality lies in the idea of a sphere, not in the snow.

Again, I say this is just an alternate way of viewing where actuality and potentiality lies, that, overall, results in a simpler metaphysics. My question is, is there something that makes it unworkable?

SR said...

I just said: I think it is a stretch to say that can-be-shaped-into-a-sphere in any way resides in the snow. Of course, it can be shaped into a sphere, but that potentiality lies in the idea of a sphere, not in the snow.

I would like to modify that. I think there is a simpler way to get at this.

Why do we say that snow has the potential to be a snowball? There are two things required:
- that someone has the idea of a making a snowball, and
- that snow has certain properties that allow it to be shaped into a sphere.

The first requirement is what I was trying to get at in what I said previously. What I want to add is that the snow's properties that make it potentially a sphere belong to its form. They also are what allow the snowball to undergo alterational change. Meanwhile, the snow's properties are what they are due to the form of the snow's "matter", and so on down to some elemental forms. But the properties of an elemental form cannot come from prime matter, since prime matter has no properties.

So, in sum, what we consider "potential" is all form. The concept of prime matter has no explanatory value that I can discern.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a stretch to say that can-be-shaped-into-a-sphere in any way resides in the snow.
Of course, it can be shaped into a sphere, but that potentiality lies in the idea of a sphere, not in the snow.


Just to respond to this first part, it isn't so much that the snow can be shaped into a sphere that Aristotle is getting at. It is the notion that snow, and in fact, any material form, can be so radically changed as to become something completely different.
Prime matter is simply the potentiality of an actual substance to become something completely different.

So, in sum, what we consider "potential" is all form. The concept of prime matter has no explanatory value that I can discern.

I think that makes sense, but I would say that prime matter simply represents the potential inherent in an actualized form to become some other form altogether.
Perhaps prime matter is a more confusing way of saying, "non-actualized form" in relation to an actualized form. Does that come close to what you are saying?

Cheers,
Daniel

SR said...

Perhaps prime matter is a more confusing way of saying, "non-actualized form" in relation to an actualized form. Does that come close to what you are saying?

More than confusing, I regard "prime matter" as a conceptual error. By reifying "pure potential", Aristotle is able to say that an elemental thing is a composite of an elemental form and pure potentiality. While I say it is a composite of an elemental form and Pure Act. This also makes other differences from A-T. Not, as far as I can tell, in the Five Ways, since those only depend on contingent things being composites. But an example of something that is different is the A-T picture of post mortem existence, as the A-T dualism between physical things and non-physical things no longer holds.

Anonymous said...

I think what you are describing as elemental forms are what Aquinas would call the class of simple beings called angels and God. Angels are a composite of form and actuality and are not composites of matter and form. Angels have their actuality by participation, meaning it does not belong to their essence necessarily to exist. God has actuality by nature, according to his essence, there he is a necessary being. By trying to eliminate prime matter, you remove the distinction between the material and immaterial world.

Cheers,
Daniel

Anonymous said...

Looking back on the thread, I see that you have hashed this out with others. I'm just getting up to speed it seems.

You are proposing an immaterial ontology for everything.

I suspect that this is a result of viewing all forms in a univocal way. Simple forms do not specify any category of quantity. Whereas forms that specify material things do.

But I do think your argument does show the need for a prime immaterial mover.

Cheers,
Daniel

Anonymous said...

So to get back to your point, the material world is made of informed matter with quantity from the most complex galaxy to the simplest quark, and possibly even lower. Matter here specifies the whole range of objects that have quantity and can be described generically as prime matter, although prime matter does not really exist as a mind independent substance. But I think it is a useful concept none the less since it does describe the class of forms that makes up the natural order, in distinction to the class of forms that do not specify quantity.

To reduce all matter to actuality is an unwarranted reduction, I think.

Cheers,
Daniel

SR said...

So to get back to your point, the material world is made of informed matter with quantity from the most complex galaxy to the simplest quark, and possibly even lower. Matter here specifies the whole range of objects that have quantity and can be described generically as prime matter,

That conflicts with how A-T defines prime matter. In A-T, as someone noted above, prime matter is completely formless, infinite (in the sense of having no definition), and purely potential.

Hence, the word 'matter' (in my alternative) is just a handy word to distinguish actualized forms with molecular subforms from other actualized forms like thoughts, feelings, or angels.

And no, I do assume that angels are "elemental". An elemental form is one without subforms, and I have no idea what an angelic form is like. But it is true, as you say, that angels and elemental forms -- and physical forms -- are actualized in the same way.


To reduce all matter to actuality is an unwarranted reduction, I think.

Which I don't do. In my view, the word 'matter' no longer has a fundamental ontological role. It is just a subclass of form/actuality composites.

Scott said...

@SR:

According to Aquinas, since angels are immaterial and are therefore not differentiated/individuated by matter, there's just one of each species (form). According to your view, could there be more than one angel with the same form?

SR said...

According to Aquinas, since angels are immaterial and are therefore not differentiated/individuated by matter, there's just one of each species (form). According to your view, could there be more than one angel with the same form?

If one considers two instances of an overall form, but with differing subforms (like different dog breeds, or, indeed, different dogs), then, yes. In sum, my view has subforms doing all the differentiating and individuating that "proximate matter" does in A-T.

DavidM said...

SR wrote: By "complex" I mean a form that contains subforms. Like a rabbit contains organs, which contain cells, which contain molecules, etc. See above on my (incorrect) use of "accidental change".

From an Aristotelian perspective, you seem to be conflating two very different kinds of 'subform.' A part like an organ is an integral part of the organism as such. It is itself a hylemorphic compound without being a complete substance. Molecules, on the other hand, do not have any kind of formal specificity in relation to the organism. The individual molecules making up the organism are in constant flux, and this is essential to the proper operation (life) of the organism. That said, the molecules do instantiate 'subforms,' but that does not imply that they are not the 'matter' of the organism. Not all matter is prime matter, so it seems you are in fact referring to what Aristotle would call a "composite thing" (i.e., a material substance, a composite of matter and form).

SR's thesis appears to be this:

DavidM wrote: If there is some most elemental form (or forms) of actual matter, the formal actuality of which is present in (i.e., within the formal actuality of) all other material substances, then since this most basic element of material reality never changes (never loses its intrinsic elementary form of actuality), it can be regarded as immaterial. - How does that sound?

SR wrote: Well, not quite. First, see above about my (mis)use of "accidental change". [So elemental things only undergo 'relational change.'] Anyway, my thesis is that an actual elemental form is a composite of its form and an act of existence, rather than, as in A-T, form and prime matter.

Hmmm... Well I don't think there is a common A-T account of the matter. But for Aristotle (i.e., 'A') a form is an act of existence, so your thesis amounts to the claim that an actual elemental form is a composite of its act of existence and an act of existence. Is that what you want to say?

SR said...

From an Aristotelian perspective, you seem to be conflating two very different kinds of 'subform.' A part like an organ is an integral part of the organism as such. It is itself a hylemorphic compound without being a complete substance. Molecules, on the other hand, do not have any kind of formal specificity in relation to the organism. The individual molecules making up the organism are in constant flux, and this is essential to the proper operation (life) of the organism. That said, the molecules do instantiate 'subforms,' but that does not imply that they are not the 'matter' of the organism.

I don't see any difference here. If a rabbit undergoes a heart transplant, or has an artificial heart installed, it is still the same rabbit. If there is some aspect of a form that cannot be substituted, then I wouldn't call that aspect a subform.

Not all matter is prime matter, so it seems you are in fact referring to what Aristotle would call a "composite thing" (i.e., a material substance, a composite of matter and form).

You don't seem to be grasping that in the exact statement of my view, the word 'matter' does not show up at all. I have referred to the A-T phrase "proximate matter" just to note that in my alternative, this is expressed as "subforms". So when you say I am "in fact referring to what Aristotle would call a "composite thing" (i.e., a material substance, a composite of matter and form)", you are basically trying to reinsert the A-T idea of matter into my alternative.


Hmmm... Well I don't think there is a common A-T account of the matter. But for Aristotle (i.e., 'A') a form is an act of existence, so your thesis amounts to the claim that an actual elemental form is a composite of its act of existence and an act of existence. Is that what you want to say?

Hardly. As I said in my first comment (February 27, 2014 at 10:34 PM) my alternative view reverses the Aristotelian assignment of actual to form and potential to matter. In so doing it eliminates "matter" as an ontological category, though it is still useful as a naive term to refer to forms with molecular subforms.

DavidM said...

@SR: I think you're clearly not listening (or understanding). There is no 'A-T view' of the matter. I am saying that Aristotle and Thomas do not have the same position here. There is nothing un-Aristotelian or naïve about calling bronze 'matter.' I think this is a matter of you not grasping the terminology (understandably, never having actually read Aristotle before setting out to refute him - correct?).

"I don't see any difference here. If a rabbit undergoes a heart transplant, or has an artificial heart installed, it is still the same rabbit. If there is some aspect of a form that cannot be substituted, then I wouldn't call that aspect a subform."

So do ya figure you can substitute the form of the rabbit? Surely you can see that having an organ transplant is not the same as eating grass and taking a poop. The two are not conceptually related in the same way to the form of the rabbit (its life, its rabbity little soul).

"You don't seem to be grasping that in the exact statement of my view, the word 'matter' does not show up at all."

Words are irrelevant if conceptually what you refer to is no different from what Aristotle refers to (as 'matter').

"I have referred to the A-T phrase "proximate matter" just to note that in my alternative, this is expressed as "subforms". So when you say I am "in fact referring to what Aristotle would call a "composite thing" (i.e., a material substance, a composite of matter and form)", you are basically trying to reinsert the A-T idea of matter into my alternative."

Again, what 'A-T idea of matter' are you referring to? It seems like you maybe don't really know what you're talking about.

"Hardly. As I said in my first comment (February 27, 2014 at 10:34 PM) my alternative view reverses the Aristotelian assignment of actual to form and potential to matter. In so doing it eliminates "matter" as an ontological category, though it is still useful as a naive term to refer to forms with molecular subforms."

Could you try that again? I don't think that's what the post you refer to actually says, and in any case it sounds incoherent.

SR said...

@DavidM,

Yes, I am no expert on Aristotle, nor have I claimed to be. I am basing all this on what I have learned of A-T from Aquinas and whatever else I have picked up from this blog.

And one thing I have picked up is that A-T postulates that there is something called "prime matter". There is also something called "God's actualizing power" (or "acts of existence"). Both, in A-T, pervade all physical beings, while only the latter pervades all non-physical things. I am proposing an alternative, where there is no "prime matter". To do this, I also need to reverse the A-T idea that, for physical things, form actualizes, while "matter" is potential. Instead, I say that acts of existence actualize potential forms.

What is incoherent about this? One still has individualization and the ability to undergo alterational change, only one describes it as a matter of having replaceable subforms, rather than as having replaceable matter.

DavidM said...

@SR:
"And one thing I have picked up is that A-T postulates that there is something called "prime matter"."

Okay, but unless you can show me where Aristotle (the 'A' of 'A-T') postulates prime matter, then for starters I'm asking you to un-pick-up this claim. From the SEP article, "Aristotle's Metaphysics":

Matter, form, and the compound of matter and form may all be considered subjects, Aristotle tells us, (1029a2–4), but which of them is substance? The subject criterion by itself leads to the answer that the substance of x is an entirely indeterminate matter of which x is composed (1029a10). For form is predicated of matter as subject, and one can always analyze a hylomorphic compound into its predicates and the subject of which they are predicated. And when all predicates have been removed (in thought), the subject that remains is nothing at all in its own right—an entity all of whose properties are accidental to it (1029a12–27). The resulting subject is matter from which all form has been expunged. (Traditional scholarship calls this “prime matter,” but Aristotle does not here indicate whether he thinks there actually is such a thing.)

Okay?

SR said...

@DavidM,

It would appear, then, that I picked it up from the 'T' in A-T, rather than the 'A'. Which I acknowledged at March 6, 2014 at 12:55 PM. I note that since that point I did refer once to Aristotle, when I, perhaps, shouldn't have. But what does this have to do with the coherency of what I am proposing?

David M said...

@SR:

Once? Every time you use the expression 'A-T' you are referring to Aristotle. Every time.

Now, re. the coherence of your proposal (which seems to keep changing):

"there is something called "prime matter"."

Fine.

"There is also something called "God's actualizing power" (or "acts of existence")."

Where are you getting the idea that these two notions are interchangeable? Thomas distinguishes a thing's act of being from its essence (the latter comprised of form and matter).

"Both, in A-T, pervade all physical [or material] beings, while only the latter pervades all non-physical things."

Sure: All things have an act of being, only material beings have matter.

"I am proposing an alternative, where there is no "prime matter"."

So you think.

"To do this, I also need to reverse the A-T idea that, for physical things, form actualizes, while "matter" is potential. Instead, I say that acts of existence actualize potential forms."

This is incoherent. You go from form actualizes matter to acts of existence actualize forms. How on earth is that supposed to be a reversal? In Thomas' view (again, drop the 'A-T') there is a twofold composition of act and potency in material substances. I don't see any coherent proposal here for any kind of 'reversal' of this position.

Scott said...

@SR:

"I am proposing an alternative, where there is no 'prime matter'. To do this, I also need to reverse the A-T idea that, for physical things, form actualizes, while 'matter' is potential. Instead, I say that acts of existence actualize potential forms."

Like David M, I'm having trouble understanding your proposal.

(1) In order to drop prime matter from the Thomist[*] account, it's not necessary to "reverse" anything. As David M says, it's not clear that Aristotle believed in "prime matter" himself, and at any rate it's possible to propose alternatives that don't involve any such reversals. (For example, maybe it's "form all the way down" forever and it never bottoms out anywhere.) So it seems incorrect to say that in order to propose an account without prime matter, one needs to reverse the idea that form actualizes matter. (Nor, as we'll see in a moment, does your own proposal appear to require it.)

(2) Your proposal that acts of existence actualize forms is already a part of Thomism. Thomism already says that acts of existence actualize essences; I don't see that this differs in any significant way from your proposal, and you've already said yourself that they're the same thing as far as you're concerned.

(3) And yet somehow Thomism manages to distinguish between the actualization of matter by form and the actualization of essence by acts of existence. You don't seem to be reversing anything at all—just collapsing a distinction already present in Thomism, without (as far as I can see) giving any reason to regard the two concepts as redundant or (as David M says) explaining why you think we can do without the act/potency account of material substances.

If you were really reversing the idea that form actualizes matter, you'd be proposing that matter actualizes form. But you're not (are you?).

----

[*] I'm gathering from your previous remarks that when you say "A-T" you really mean "Thomism."

SR said...

@DavidM

"there is something called "prime matter"."

Fine.

"There is also something called "God's actualizing power" (or "acts of existence")."

Where are you getting the idea that these two notions are interchangeable? Thomas distinguishes a thing's act of being from its essence (the latter comprised of form and matter).


Where did I say they were interchangeable? I said that in Thomism, they are both present in physical things. What I am proposing is that one can drop 'prime matter' from an account of physical things.

On the "reversal" issue, see below.

@Scott
On (1) and (2)
Ok.

(3) And yet somehow Thomism manages to distinguish between the actualization of matter by form and the actualization of essence by acts of existence. You don't seem to be reversing anything at all—just collapsing a distinction already present in Thomism, without (as far as I can see) giving any reason to regard the two concepts as redundant or (as David M says) explaining why you think we can do without the act/potency account of material substances.

I've never said we can do without the act/potency account of physical things (I'm trying to avoid the word "material".) I am saying that there is no actualization of anything by form.

If you were really reversing the idea that form actualizes matter, you'd be proposing that matter actualizes form. But you're not (are you?).

I am saying that there is no need for a concept called "matter" to account for changing things, that all we need are the concepts "acts of existence" and "forms" and "subforms".

DavidM said...

@SR:

"Where did I say they were interchangeable?"

In the quote immediately preceding my comment to that effect! (Where else?) To remind you:

"There is also something called "God's actualizing power" (or "acts of existence")."

So to clarify your proposal, you say "that there is no need for a concept called "matter" to account for changing things, that all we need are the concepts "acts of existence" and "forms" and "subforms"."

So you want to preserve Thomas' twofold composition of act and potency in material substances, but you just don't want to use the word 'matter' or 'material'? (If so, what is the point of doing so?)

DavidM said...

"I am saying that there is no actualization of anything by form." - sure, so you say, but it's still not clear how that is actually supposed to work.

Scott said...

@SR:

"I've never said we can do without the act/potency account of physical things (I'm trying to avoid the word 'material'.) I am saying that there is no actualization of anything by form. . . . I am saying that there is no need for a concept called 'matter' to account for changing things, that all we need are the concepts 'acts of existence' and 'forms' and 'subforms'."

But that does imply that we can do without the act/potency account of physical things. If physical things consist entirely of forms (and subforms), and "there is no actualization of anything by forms," then nothing physical ever actualizes anything.

Can you get around this issue by making "acts of existence" physical as well? In Thomism it's God Who joins essences to acts of existence. Are you proposing to change that too?

If not, then you also seem to be at least skirting the edges of a version of occasionalism. If the created world consists only of forms (including "subforms"), forms don't actualize anything, and "acts of existence" come directly from God, then where has secondary causation gone?

Another question: You've already implied that what individuates one substance from another is just the possession of different "subforms." But I don't see any reason in principle why (say) two dogs couldn't have all the same subforms. Supposing they did, what would individuate them?

Scott said...

@SR:

It also seems from your previous posts that you're saying (correctly) that, for Thomists, the "matter" out of which (say) a bronze statue is made (bronze, which you don't object to calling "matter" in the everyday sense of the word) has a form of its own, and that this having of "subforms" continues downward.

Now, if you're doing away with "prime matter," then I suppose one of two things must happen: either the subforms go on forever, or they "bottom out" somewhere in nothing at all. And I gather from one or two of your previous posts that you expect things to bottom out at the most elementary physical particles, which on your view don't actualize "prime matter" but are instead themselves forms actualized by "acts of existence." (I say "instead" because you're presenting this as an alternative, but in fact the essences of elementary particles, just like those of anything else, are already actualized by "acts of existence" on the Thomist account.)

In what way are you saying this account improves on the one that relies on "prime matter"?

Scott said...

@SR:

Another thought: If all you want to do is avoid the terms "matter," "material," and so forth, but you want to keep the concepts of act and potency, then what's wrong with saying "pure potency" instead of "prime matter"?

SR said...

@DavidM,

"There is a cat in the room. There is also a ghost in the room." I don't take that to mean the cat and the ghost are interchangeable.

So you want to preserve Thomas' twofold composition of act and potency in material substances, but you just don't want to use the word 'matter' or 'material'? (If so, what is the point of doing so?)

My purpose is work out a simpler ontology, in which there is no material/immaterial distinction.

@Scott,

But that does imply that we can do without the act/potency account of physical things. If physical things consist entirely of forms (and subforms), and "there is no actualization of anything by forms," then nothing physical ever actualizes anything.

No, physical things are actualized forms, form/actualizing-power composites, which can actualize other things.

Can you get around this issue by making "acts of existence" physical as well? In Thomism it's God Who joins essences to acts of existence. Are you proposing to change that too?

No. The actualizing power is Pure Act, i.e., God.

If not, then you also seem to be at least skirting the edges of a version of occasionalism. If the created world consists only of forms (including "subforms"), forms don't actualize anything, and "acts of existence" come directly from God, then where has secondary causation gone?

I would say that an actualized form (a thing) can be an efficient cause because it is channeling the actualizing power.

Another question: You've already implied that what individuates one substance from another is just the possession of different "subforms." But I don't see any reason in principle why (say) two dogs couldn't have all the same subforms. Supposing they did, what would individuate them?

They would have different actualized subforms. Each actualization of a form (or subform) is a separate individual.

And I gather from one or two of your previous posts that you expect things to bottom out at the most elementary physical particles, which on your view don't actualize "prime matter" but are instead themselves forms actualized by "acts of existence." (I say "instead" because you're presenting this as an alternative, but in fact the essences of elementary particles, just like those of anything else, are already actualized by "acts of existence" on the Thomist account.)

In what way are you saying this account improves on the one that relies on "prime matter"?


Unless I am missing something about essences, the improvement -- if it works out -- is that there are only essence/existence composites (one no longer speaks of form/matter composites). There is work to be done in explaining the substance/accident distinction, but I think that can be done in terms of essential and inessential subforms.

Another thought: If all you want to do is avoid the terms "matter," "material," and so forth, but you want to keep the concepts of act and potency, then what's wrong with saying "pure potency" instead of "prime matter"?

I don't just want to avoid the term 'matter'. I want a simpler ontology, in which there is no material/immaterial distinction. One can, of course, distinguish physical and non-physical things, but, ontologically speaking, that is no more fundamental than, say distinguishing between living and non-living things. In this ontology, there is no "pure potency". There is just Pure Act and forms.

David M said...

""There is a cat in the room. There is also a ghost in the room." I don't take that to mean the cat and the ghost are interchangeable."

Er, right; neither do I. Relevant? I think not.

"My purpose is work out a simpler ontology, in which there is no material/immaterial distinction."

Yes, that that is your purpose is evident. But it seems that you haven't first understood the more complex ontology that you're trying to simplify, so that might be the place to start.

"the improvement -- if it works out -- is that there are only essence/existence composites (one no longer speaks of form/matter composites)."

But why think this is an improvement (other than an irrational antipathy towards speaking of form/matter composites)? Do you think that a rabbit's organs, and the grass that a rabbit eats, and its poop, are all univocally 'subforms' of the form of a rabbit? Please explain how you make such determinations (without invoking a conceptual distinction like that of 'matter/form').

Scott said...

@SR:

"'There is a cat in the room. There is also a ghost in the room.' I don't take that to mean the cat and the ghost are interchangeable."

What you actually wrote was more like There is something called a "cat." There is also something called a "ghost" (or "vampire").

I believe David M is asking you why you think ghosts and vampires are interchangeable, not why you think cats and ghosts are.

Scott said...

@SR:

"I don't just want to avoid the term 'matter'. I want a simpler ontology, in which there is no material/immaterial distinction."

So much, as David M says, is evident. What is not evident to either of us is why.

"In this ontology, there is no 'pure potency'. There is just Pure Act and forms."

This doesn't address my question and it just introduces new problems.

If you're not getting rid of the concepts of act and potency (as you're obviously not if you're keeping Pure Act), then you're not getting rid of "pure potency" any more than you're getting rid of Pure Act. You might just as well say you want to rewrite the "ontology" of the grayscale spectrum by keeping the distinction between black and white, but rejecting "pure black" and retaining only Pure White.

I have to echo David M in suggesting you become more familiar with the ontology you're trying to simplify before you try to simplify it.

Scott said...

@SR:

One final reply and I'll bow out of this discussion.

"I would say that an actualized form (a thing) can be an efficient cause because it is channeling the actualizing power."

If you're saying that an actualized form can actualize other forms, then you seem to have misspoken when you said forms don't actualize anything. If you're not, then it's not at all clear what you think your actualized forms can be "efficient cause[s]" of.

"They would have different actualized subforms. Each actualization of a form (or subform) is a separate individual."

That doesn't address the question. The subform itself is the same subform in each instance, so you must be (and are) saying that the instances are differentiated by having been brought about by different "actualizations." But subforms are just lower-level forms, so you've just pushed the problem down one level.

The problem, basically, is that you've left no way to tell the actualizations apart. What distinguishes Pure Act's actualization of the "form of a dog" in one instance from Pure Act's actualization of the "form of a dog" in another instance? You say the two dogs have different actualized subforms. But now I can ask what distinguishes the two actualized subforms, which are just forms in their own right. The only answer available to you is that they in turn have different actualized subforms. But since you think the hierarchy of forms "bottoms out" in the elementary particles, you can only keep giving that answer for so long; eventually you reach a level where you can't tell, say, two electrons apart.

This individuation is precisely the function that "matter" fulfills in A-T. You have nothing in your own ontology to take over that job—and if you did, it would turn out to be "matter" under another name. (For example, "pure potency," which it is quite inconsistent of you to reject while keeping the concepts of act and potency. If you were consistent on this point, "pure potency" would just be the "prime matter" of your own system.)

You want to say that "acts of existing" can do the job, but they can't. As I've previously mentioned, A-T already includes an account, much like yours, specifically of immaterial substances like angels—and unfortunately for you, it also holds that there can be only one immaterial being of each form, so it still doesn't give you any way to make two dogs. You're not only reinventing the wheel but making it square.

SR said...

@David M said...


My apologies, I though you were asking why I thought prime matter and acts of existence were interchangeable. As to whether I think actualizing power and acts of existence are interchangeable, well, one uses one phrase in one context and another in another, like using 'thinking' sometimes, and 'thoughts' at other times.

Yes, that that is your purpose is evident. But it seems that you haven't first understood the more complex ontology that you're trying to simplify, so that might be the place to start.

I raised the issue here (rather than, say, writing an essay on it) because I don't have a thorough understanding of A-T. I asked if there was some reason it wouldn't work, got some objections, responded to the objections, and in the process learned some more about A-T. But so far I haven't come across a show-stopping objection.

Do you think that a rabbit's organs, and the grass that a rabbit eats, and its poop, are all univocally 'subforms' of the form of a rabbit?

No.

Please explain how you make such determinations (without invoking a conceptual distinction like that of 'matter/form').

How does Thomism mark the point at which the grass ceases to be grass and become part of the rabbit? I imagine it will talk of a grass cell matter/form composite decomposing and the grass cell's matter becoming part of the rabbit's cells. I would explain it as the grass cell ceasing to be actualized, leaving the cell's actualized subforms as an aggregate, which the rabbit incorporates into its cells.

In other words, no difference as far as explanatory power. Differences arise when one talks about angels and humans.

@Scott
If you're not getting rid of the concepts of act and potency (as you're obviously not if you're keeping Pure Act), then you're not getting rid of "pure potency" any more than you're getting rid of Pure Act. You might just as well say you want to rewrite the "ontology" of the grayscale spectrum by keeping the distinction between black and white, but rejecting "pure black" and retaining only Pure White.

The difference is that in my ontology, "potential" consists of forms. I don't see that it makes sense to speak of "pure form". It does make sense to speak of "Pure Act", to distinguish it from the acts of existence that are composed with forms. It is not like black/white, it is like One/many.

If you're saying that an actualized form can actualize other forms, then you seem to have misspoken when you said forms don't actualize anything. If you're not, then it's not at all clear what you think your actualized forms can be "efficient cause[s]" of.

I thought it would be clear that what I meant was that the ability of an actualized form to actualize something comes from the actualizing power in the actualized form, not the form.

The problem, basically, is that you've left no way to tell the actualizations apart. What distinguishes Pure Act's actualization of the "form of a dog" in one instance from Pure Act's actualization of the "form of a dog" in another instance? You say the two dogs have different actualized subforms. But now I can ask what distinguishes the two actualized subforms, which are just forms in their own right. The only answer available to you is that they in turn have different actualized subforms. But since you think the hierarchy of forms "bottoms out" in the elementary particles, you can only keep giving that answer for so long; eventually you reach a level where you can't tell, say, two electrons apart.

I addressed this a while back. How do physicists distinguish between two electrons? Not because one has one form and another another, but because they are in different locations, or exist at different times, or are in a different relation to other things (like free or bound to a nucleus).

Scott said...

@SR:

"How do physicists distinguish between two electrons? Not because one has one form and another another, but because they are in different locations, or exist at different times, or are in a different relation to other things (like free or bound to a nucleus)."

Which provides no metaphysical basis for distinguishing the state of affairs "two electrons" from the state of affairs "one electron in two places" (or, mutatis mutandis, provide a ground of distinction in the other cases). After all, why can't one electron be in two places? Universals (if they're real) can, and you've just walked straight into the famous "problem" thereof.

Now, if you want an ontology that doesn't include any principle of individuation, that's fine; at one time I thought (though I don't now think) that something like a "bundle theory" of particulars would suffice and the only true "individual" was the overarching system of reality itself. (You'll find a good exposition of this view in Brand Blanshard's Reason and Analysis, which is a great book all around and I highly recommend it.) But the fact remains that your "acts of existing" don't serve as such a principle.

But as I said, I'm bowing out.

David M said...

@SR:

"How does Thomism mark the point at which the grass ceases to be grass and become part of the rabbit? I imagine it will talk of a grass cell matter/form composite decomposing and the grass cell's matter becoming part of the rabbit's cells."

Not a grass cell, so much, but just the grass, as soon as it is uprooted or cut and incapable of continuing to perform its proper operations (nutrition, growth, reproduction), ceases to be grass (except in an equivocal sense - it is a grass-'corpse,' you could say). Part of the deceased grass (or portion thereof) - the grass material - becomes part of the rabbit, or serves as fuel for the rabbits proper operations, when it is metabolically transformed by the rabbit, so as to serve as matter for its formal operations, while part of it is expelled as waste in the form of droppings, which can't really be said to have any (substantial) form. (What exactly are droppings, by your account? Are they actualized 'subforms'? Do they have proper operations? At what point do they count as having been 'generated' qua this subform? Are there actually any discrete 'subforms' (of poop), identifiable as such, to speak of here?)

"I would explain it as the grass cell ceasing to be actualized, leaving the cell's actualized subforms as an aggregate, which the rabbit incorporates into its cells."

So you want to say that the grass cell loses its 'form'; its 'subforms' then become (subsistent) 'forms'; and then (if) they are incorporated into the cells of the rabbit they becomes 'subforms' again? But it seems that there are no sharp points of demarcation here to determine whether or not a cell or a molecule (or what have you) instantiates a particular 'form' or a 'subform.' That's why it's nice to conceive of matter as such (an intrinsic principle of potency or becoming) as belonging to the intrinsic constitution of a 'material' thing (a thing which is the subject of natural processes of generation and destruction, coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be). It accounts for the fact that by and large we don't have entirely sharp, formal demarcations by which to understand material processes.

"In other words, no difference as far as explanatory power. Differences arise when one talks about angels and humans."

If there is no difference, then there is no improvement, no?

When we talk about matter-form composites, we have an explanation for the (formal) unity of the rabbit, as well as of the intrinsically vague status of the 'subforms' (i.e., matter) of the substrates for the rabbits proper operations, which involve both constant 'becoming' - continuous flux of transeunt, metabolic (material) processes - as well as the (formal) continuity of the immanent causal processes (nutrition, etc.) that constitute its living existence.

Anyway, I'm sorry if that's not as clear as it could be, but the question remains: Why do you think your 'form-subform' ontology is an improvement on the old 'form-matter' ontology?

David M said...

"It accounts for the fact that by and large we don't have entirely sharp, formal demarcations by which to understand material processes."

Or rather: It expresses this fact.

David M said...

I could add (though I trust it is obvious): And neither do we have entirely sharp, 'subformal' demarcations by which to understand material processes.