Of Potentiality Per Se — Guest Post by The Cranky Professor

Of Potentiality Per Se — Guest Post by The Cranky Professor

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.


  1. DAV

    Are you sure the “cranky” part isn’t due to substance abuse?

  2. @DAV,
    How did you come to that conclusion? The article made perfect sense to me. The premises were spelled out and everything followed. I get that you rejected the premises presented, yet evidence of substance abuse isn’t present. So … are you projecting your own psyche onto said cranky professor? /rhetorical

  3. Christian Boyd

    I think accomplished Aristotle/Thomist philosophers (I’m following Feser on this) would rather niggle with the description of potency given. It’s important to articulate that that the *power* to change is itself defined by form, e.g. an egg has a potency *towards* becoming a bird, based on the actuality of it being an egg, which requires actualities (the actual exercise of the power to grow, eat, etc.) in order to go from being potentially an adult bird to actually being one. So matter by itself is not change actually; it isn’t anything actually, since there is no prime matter “by itself” uninformed. What matter does provide is not the possibility of change only but rather the possibility for identity across changes. I think the position you articulate is radically platonic insofar as the intelligible forms are not (it seems by your account) in any substantial unity with the (material) objects we come across.

    In my own opinion, contra Feser, I’m not convinced that some form of block theory time *sub specie aeternitatis* so to speak, “from the viewpoint of the extra-temporal God” is contrary to potentiality. Because potentiality towards something is an actual feature of an existing substance, even if the past remains present to some eternal now, the relation of that potential to its actualization in a future “slice” seems sufficient as a real case of change through identity or change *of* identity, and explains the directional and causal order in time.

  4. Sander van der Wal

    If a block theory of time is describing our universe, one would assume that that theory is capable of explaining that paper burns to ashes if you set it on fire. I.e. things in a block universe must change along their timeline, otherwise you cannot explain our universe using a block universe. After all, in our universe things change all the time along their timelines.

    Whether all other points in the timeline exist in the same way as now, or don’t exist, matters only if you can think of an experiment that will show whether some block universe is true, or the Hylomorphic one, or if you can prove that such a theory is logically inconsistent.

  5. DAV


    How did you come to that conclusion? … are you projecting?

    Conclusion? What conclusion would that be? I have searched my post for this conclusion but only see a question. Is it possible for a conclusion to end with a question mark? Should I care that the article made perfect sense to you? After all, you can’t seem to distinguish between a question and a conclusion. WHO is projecting?

  6. Mactoul

    “Matter” is simply the principle of potentiality in a material object.”

    It can’t be right. Matter has weight but principles don’t.

    All this B-theory, expanding and shrinking blocks of time replace a flowing metaphor of time by a spatial metaphor. These metaphors might please some people but are certainly not entailed by any theory of physics etc.

  7. Joy

    Well…I understood Dav’s joke.
    “You have to laugh.”
    Cranky man writes nicely, though.

  8. DAV

    Well at least someone got it 🙂

    I was going to provide a link but it’s not much of a joke if explained.

  9. Ye Olde Statistician

    Aristotle does not talk about the causations of “events,” but of “things” (that is, of ousia or substances). The inversion from things to events is one of the hallmarks of the modern ages. As is the reification of mathematical models like Minkowski 4spaces.

    According to Aquinas, God sees all times (and places) simultaneously; i.e., all time is occurring at once. B-time is therefore eternity and is experienced at once by a Being outside the universe, whereas A-time is time simplicitur and is experienced by beings inside the universe. B-time is not an extended A-time just as Aquinas noted eternity is not a really long time.

    The existence of ideal entities is Platonic, not Aristotelian. We must be wary of mix-and-match metaphysics, because there will always be Other Stuff that won’t fit right.
    The house is the final cause of the building materials.

  10. Joy

    Substitute the word cause for culprit!
    In medical fields there is predisposition or predisposing factors, Which are describing or predetermining, potential, words.

    There is a kind of deliberate mysticism and drip feeding of information, a drawing out, of concepts which seems, to me, to be quite unnecessary. Maybe it’s some people get too bored with certainty?
    There’s enough uncertainty without making easy things difficult.
    Or as ‘we’ used to say in physio training, a rubix cube out of a saddle joint. Just get eyes on the thing and see how it moves.

  11. @DAV,
    Of course you may come to a conclusion by asking a question. I didn’t see a joke though. My bad, and text is far too often a medium that omits the subtleties of spoken language, seen in person.

  12. DG

    Ok, so YOS states:
    “According to Aquinas, God sees all times (and places) simultaneously; i.e., all time is occurring at once. B-time is therefore eternity and is experienced at once by a Being outside the universe, whereas A-time is time simplicitur and is experienced by beings inside the universe. B-time is not an extended A-time just as Aquinas noted eternity is not a really long time.”

    So are you favoring a moving spotlight theory on time – a time theory that combines the A-theory and eternalism? Just curious.

  13. Ye Olde Statistician

    I don’t favor theories, especially if they conflate completely different things, like time and eternity (or evolution and creation). Science can’t handle it, because no science can demonstrate its own axioms. Physics must take the existence of an objective world, of time, of motion, for granted.

  14. Sylvain Allard


    Just curious: have you watch ”Making a murederer”?

    This is a perfect example of what you guys are afraid of

  15. Joy

    Sylvain, I’m not confused. Inconvenient, for many, but not confused.
    The other day I was doing my wet work in the swimming pool, (hydro session), and a plant lady was waiting around the corner for me to walk past just so she could talk about adders and grass snakes!
    They’re getting really desperate!
    I think they’re swamp monsters, as the water level must be getting low,
    Or maybe they’re fundamentalists who love snakes, and hate eve, or daughters of them,
    Maybe people who don’t like too much truth,
    Maybe nazzi spotter,
    maybe scientologists!
    maybe lizards,
    or just Russians.
    But I felt very virtuous after swimming, and the water was warm.
    *how much of that story do you think was true?

  16. Joy

    …and don’t start me on the changing rooms.
    Some hairy man with a beard *not nicely trimmed weekly, finding a bag he didn’t ‘recognise’ in the locker, which his little girl reminded him he uses all the time, Waiting to see which cubicle I was going into!
    (he’d only put the bag in the locker half an hour before).
    Anyway, I waved to the camera on the ceiling, used a different cubicle.

    If they’re going to have unisex changing rooms, which they don’t need, they can at least make the cubicles floor to ceiling.
    You see the idea, Sylvain, is to make people stop trusting their fellow citizens. To engender hate.
    The far left and the religious far right want this situation.
    In other words, Love Thy Neighbour, is out, mis-trust everyone, is the new commandment from the far right and the far left are there to prosecute for all the nastiness.

    It’s just better to tell the truth, even if nobody else is doing the same. Easier to do, if you have faith in Goodness.

    Forgot to add maybe they’re part of the reMoaning camp.
    Back to ‘hylemorphic’…

  17. DAV


    To answer your question: no.
    You know what I am afraid of?
    Can you tell me what my favorite flavor of ice cream is?


    To misquote Siggy the professional subtext reader: sometimes a post is just a post.


    I’m thinking they were snake loving eve haters. Probably hate Christmas Eve too. But then, they might have been busybodies obsessed with American politics.

    Charlie Hurt of the Washington Examiner made a good point on the Greg Gutfeld show Saturday night: to those on the Left, everything is about politics — even the choice of ice cream flavors.

  18. Joy

    They’re way off piste, anyway, Gatefold’s right.

    I said culprit! Should have said ‘explanation’, in the current climate. Reads the same.

    Nomological versus axiological types of explanation. That’s where I WAS going…

  19. Sylvain


    I have no idea what your are talking about!!!!


    Your fear is about big government and having them reduce your freedom. Steven Avery was sent to jail after what looks like being framed by is local police.

    Though I think in your case you would think he needs the death penalty. Which is why I was curious.


  20. DAV

    Your fear is about big government and having them reduce your freedom

    Ha! You don’t know what you’re talking about. No surprise there. Just because I look both ways before crossing the street doesn’t mean I’m afraid to do so.

    So guess again.

    Still want to know what my favorite ice cream flavor is.

  21. DAV

    Sylvain: Joy, I have no idea what your are talking about!!!!

    Yet another non-surprise.

  22. Sylvain Allard

    I guess that I was right then about what you would think of Avery.

    I was expecting that you were either the bomber or the killer at the synagogue. Must have been your Siamese twin

  23. DAV

    I guess that I was right then about what you would think of Avery.

    Well, yes, I do think Avery makes useful and convenient labels and the software to use them! How did you know? Lucky guess? Here I thought you were talking with your second anus.


  24. Joy

    Who would have thought, that vanilla could be such a potent substance!

  25. DAV


    Indeed! There”s a rather well-known CNN personality whose name is a flavor all its own who apparently despises vanilla — probably for its potency. I can just see him in ads now proclaiming “Just say NO to vanilla!”

  26. Joy

    Frank Luntz, US polster, has just been on sky explaining how Democratic candidates were telling people not to allow Republicans to eat in their restraunts (rubbish business sense) and to “get in their faces” and “attack”, them. The presenter tried to say it was Trump’s fault for setting the ‘tone’!
    So the CNN personality who’s flavour I can’t imagine, is no doubt exactly as you described. They wouldn’t know the truth if it WAS “in their face”.

  27. DAV

    The flavor can leave a sour taste in the mouth if that helps.

    The ice cream flavor thing started with Ben and Jerry’s ImPeachMint and Pecan Resist. Why they would deliberately alienate half of their potential customers is beyond me. Maybe they see the names as funny. ImPeachMint maybe but Pecan Resist?

    Same for restaurants. Hard enough business to stay afloat why cut your chances in half?

  28. Joy

    Happy Trump Day, at least I think it is. Luntz’s prediction was almost spot on. There are going to be rows.
    But the Alice in me wants to say mint doesn’t go with peach.
    I’m never buying B and J’s again! It was one of my guesses.
    I’m going to look out for the flavour but wicki’s list was long and the first one made my mind boggle.
    What hijinx there’s been over politics on line. I seriously had no idea. Experience is a brutal teacher!

  29. Sylvain Allard

    Not surprising that restaurant refuse to serve white supremacist which has a new synonym GOP.

    Kemp only won by committing election fraud and preventing people from voting.

  30. DAV

    Yet strangely, race is uppermost in your posts. You are forever going on about it even when it makes no sense.


    In Texas, voting for the Cuban instead of the Irish guy with the fake Hispanic name was somehow racist. ‘Racist’ is just something thrown out by mindless puppets when there is nothing useful to say.

    Some of Sylvan’s friends no doubt. Same group that went after the Cuban guy mentioned above and his wife not so long ago.

    activists rang his doorbell, broke his oak door and one protester was apparently caught on security video mentioning a pipe bomb.

    He wasn’t home but his wife and kids were.

  31. Joy

    The people on that tape sound like white people, too.

    Sylvain, at least you are not a racist rapist, just a racist, anti white inferioricist.

    It makes vicky Pollard look sensible…nd that tape isn’t funny, it’s appalling.

    All this does is shows people’s true colours, I mean flavour, or whatever.
    Racist is a meaningless word.

    Go vanilla!

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