Because of my recent article on the problem of getting consciousness out of unconscious matter, I’ve been asked to write a brief essay on my views of Aristotle’s notion of potentiality. First of all, according to Aristotle, and his theory of hylomorphism, there are four types of causes: formal causes, end causes, efficient causes and material causes.
Formal causes are basically what a thing is, it’s definition. End causes are the purpose or intended end behind a thing. Efficient (or agent) causes are the entity or entities that cause an event to happen. And material causes are the material or stuff that is used to make something or produce an event. Imagine a person building a house. The person along with other workers manages to build a house and after the house is finished, the man decides to live in the given shelter. The formal cause of the object made is what the thing is as such. The built shelter evidently is a “house” or some kind of elaborate shelter that a person can live in as such. The material cause would be the stuff used to make the house such as wood, metal, concrete etc. The efficient cause of the house coming into being would be the owner and the builders of the house. The end cause of the house would be its intended purpose or end, which to the owner of the house is to live conveniently in it.
Now I’m in agreement with Aristotle that things have formal causes or that physical entities adhere to abstract concepts. After all, if the physical world is to be logically sensible, understandable and capable of description, then it is going to have to be described in terms of timeless, abstract notions and meanings. Without reference to meanings expressed by statements, the physical world would be impossible to understand and to describe as such. We couldn’t even do science without describing the world with the use of abstract concepts and propositions. In addition to Aristotle, I would also add that content in language is something timeless, immaterial and extra-mental and is not something that’s merely confined within human minds and their judgments on things. So in other words, everything is describable and intelligible because of the existence of ideal entities.
I also have no disagreement with the notion of end causes or so-called final causality. We can see that manufactured objects like houses, cars, computers, etc. are made with a purpose among human beings. Moreover, if nature or the universe is a system created by a Supreme Intelligence, which I would grant, then things in nature also have a purpose behind their existence. Theism would imply a teleological view of nature — a view that is also implicit in Aristotle. Efficient causes, of course, exist. Hardly anyone would question the existence of efficient causes. Material causes are also very much a part of the world since causal events involve pre-existent matter or stuff to bring about effects.
Where I disagree with the hylomorphist scheme is that I do not think that entities have a “principle of potentiality” in them in the sense that they become other things. The idea of hylomorphism was formulated by Aristotle. Hylomorphism is primary a theory of change. It assumes, contrary to Parmenides and many block universe theorists like myself, that change in the world is metaphysically real and it attempts to account for the changes in the world. According to Aristotle, material substances have two principles of matter and form (or potentiality and actuality).
“Form” is simply the whatness or identity of a thing; its definition. Like the chairness of a chair, the triangleness of a triangle. Material beings have this principle that enables them to be a certain “form” or type of being like chairs, humans, trees, rocks, etc. “Matter” is simply the principle of potentiality in a material object. Material beings have the ability to become this or that type of thing, or to take on a particular “form”. A brief hylomorphic account of a paper turning into ashes would be thus: the paper is composed of matter (ability to change) and form (whatness, the state of being a certain type of thing) and the paper has the ability to become ashes because of this “matter” principle in it. And so a person lights the paper and the paper turns into ashes and it takes on a new form. The paper then becomes the pile of ashes thanks to the paper’s intrinsic ability to change and take on new forms. What is implied by the hylomorphist account of material objects is that not only is temporal flow an objective feature of the world but also that things actually have the ability to become new things. This is why a hylomorphist theory of change logically implies a presentist theory of time.
Aristotle wants to say that a piece paper literally becomes a pile of ashes in time. This entails that the paper has to cease to exist and become the new thing — the pile of ashes. Now there are different dynamic theories of time besides presentism, like growing block theory, shrinking block theory and moving spotlight theory. However, none of these differing A-theories of time will work for the hylomorphist. This is because with the other A-theories of time, there is only a “becoming of moments” but not a “becoming of things”.
For instance, if the growing block theory is true then all past and present moments would exist and the future would be non-existent. So would the paper still exist at that past period of time after one ignites the paper and turns it into ashes? The answer would certainly be a “yes” if one accepts a growing block theory. So if the paper at that earlier time remains existent then the paper cannot be said to “become” the ashes on a growing block model because the paper really hasn’t ceased to exist and has not become absorbed into the new being with the new form.
On a shrinking block theory, the whole process of the paper “turning into” ashes would already be set from the future until the present moment passes away and all those events cease to exist. With a shrinking block model, only the present and future moments exist until, of course, they fall into the non-existent past. So again there’s no real “becoming of things” within a shrinking block theory; there would only be a temporal becoming of events.
The same is true of a moving spotlight theory. A moving spotlight theory holds, like the block universe model, that all past, present and future moments are real. The only difference between a B-theory and moving spotlight theory is that the moving spotlight says that there is an exclusive present moment moving across the eternal timeline whereas with a block time model, there’s no privileged present moving across the timeline. Nonetheless, the situation is the same in the moving spotlight theory as it is in the block universe model, the process of the paper “turning into” ashes gets reduced to a series of co-equally real events ordered one after another without any real “becoming of things”. The moving spotlight theory may have a “becoming of moments” unlike the block universe model, but like the block model, it has no “becoming of things.”
It is only the traditional presentist theory of time that has a “becoming of things” ingrained in it. If the paper can said to “become” the ashes then that would imply that the events of the paper would have to cease to exist and then get absorbed into the new thing. No other theory of time can have a “becoming of things” like the presentist model. Hence, hylomorphism entails a presentist theory of time in order for it to work. Otherwise, why say that anything whether it is a piece of paper, or an acorn has real ‘potential to become” other things like ashes, or trees?
Aristotle’s theory of change not merely assumes that temporal becoming is objective; it also seems to imply that things in the world really become other things as well. Besides, many commentators interpret Aristotle to be a presentist on the philosophy of time. There are several works, of course, like the Physics and On Generation and Corruption that seem to implicitly point to a presentist model of time. And Aristotle was very probably a presentist since presentism was practically the only available theory around at that period. He most certainly held a type of dynamic theory of time in which he strongly contends that time is dependent on change and motion. At any rate, if the hylomorphist notion of “matter” or “potentiality” that’s apparently in things is to be taken as descriptive of a real “becoming of things” and not just a passing of events, then presentism would be the only acceptable time theory given those terms.
Do I endorse hylomorphism or the notion that things are composed of matter and form? No, I certainly do not. I don’t have a problem with Aristotle’s basic notion of formal causes but the problem for me is his assumption of potentiality or “matter” in things. With a static theory of time, there seems to be no room for things literally “becoming” other things. So the event of the paper “turning into” ashes or any other apparent transformation in the world seems to be merely reduced to a series of events without the original thing ceasing to exist and getting absorbed into the new being. This is also one of reasons why I’ve argued that a block universe theory undermines materialism because if there can be no real potential of a material object becoming conscious then it seems that the materialist has no other alternative but to expect that consciousness could just magically arise out of complete nothing from material that lacks mental phenomena.
Some may inquire about how change in the world may lead into the existence of God. One of the questions (or objections) in the comment section has been that change and motion in the world leads to an Unmoved Mover or a Deity that is the ultimate Ground of change. My answer is that I simply don’t have any interest in using the theistic argument from motion and change to support the existence of God. With a block time theory, change is only an appearance, it’s not an objective reality since all history is accomplished in God’s timeless presence. There might be a way to reconcile and reformulate a first mover argument with the B-theory of time provided that change isn’t assumed to be metaphysically real, and motion perhaps defined differently from other theories of time, but I don’t see the need to go that route.
I think a type of cosmological argument for the existence of God that’s similar to Aquinas’ third proof or to Leibniz’s own version would be better for the B-theorist. After all, granting the truth of the B-theory of time is just a hair away from concluding, if not an implicit endorsement, of the notion that there must be some kind of eternal, necessary Being or a Being whose non-existence is metaphysically impossible. With a Parmenidean block universe, all events are imperishable; they do not and cannot cease to exist. Where would the bock universe derive its imperishability or eternity from as such? However one answers that question, it inevitably leads to an eternal necessary Being as the ground of all being.
Nonetheless, the argument from motion, which originally comes from Aristotle, has its virtues and it can be formulated into a very good argument if one accepts an A-theory of time. For one, the argument nicely conforms to Ockham’s Razor in that one Unmoved Mover is the simpler and sufficient explanation to be favored over a gratuitous and questionable account that posits an infinite number of moved movers or sources of change.
Secondly, the First Mover argument also dovetails well with an A-theory of time. If an A-theory of time is true, then temporal flow is an objective feature in the world. This means that objective temporal flow has to be explained. An Unmoved Mover that’s causing events to become present would be a very good explanation why time flows. Without an Unmover Mover, or some ultimate source of change, temporal flow would be left unexplained for the A-theorist.
Thirdly, as Aristotle seems to have pointed out a long time ago, change requires an ultimate source to produce the change. If you doubt this then I invite you to imagine a train with an infinite number of boxcars with no locomotive or anything that ultimately moves the train. Suppose the train is moving and each boxcar is always moved by another boxcar in an infinite regress. Now could this train with an infinite regress of moving boxcars ever manage to stop and be at rest? It seems not. There would be nothing there to start the change from motion to rest within the train itself. This is because no matter how far one regresses into the infinite series of boxcars, there would always be a need for another boxcar to stop in order for other boxcars to stop. There would be nothing there like a locomotive to start the whole change from motion to rest. And if the train happened to stop moving, there would no explanation why this change ever occurred, nor where the change ultimately came from as such.
An infinite regress of moved movers or sources of change is therefore incapable of explaining the existence of change. Hence, as Aristotle points out, change requires an ultimate cause behind it. For Aristotle, it was the Divine that was the ultimate cause behind change. The A-theory of time, if true, would need an ultimate cause behind the changing present moment. Hence, the argument from motion goes hand in hand with a dynamic theory of time.
So I think I’ve summed up Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism, the fact that hylomorphism implies a presentist theory of time, and that any time theory that assumes the reality of change would seem to imply an ultimate source of change. I don’t believe in Aristotle’s “potentiality per se” concept mainly because I endorse a different view of time. Nonetheless, the alternative time theories and their implications about the nature of change are laid out before us and one must discern which time theory seems to be correct.