From Necessary Being to Unchangeable Being?

One listener to my recent YouTube presentation on the channel Crusade Against Ignorance objects to my claim that the inference from necessary being to unchangeable being is a non-sequitur. Here is that person’s objection:

Hi Joe. So, from the video, I take it that you don’t think an unchangeable being (i.e. a purely actual being with no potency whatsoever) follows from a necessary being. I was wondering if you could give your thoughts on an argument that attempts to show why an unchangeable being follows from a necessary being.

Firstly, do you accept that a necessary being would have to be purely actual and devoid of all potential in its existence? If something had potency in its existence, then it would require an actualizer of its existence from something already actual. But, if this is the case, then it wouldn’t be necessary as it would depend on another for its existence. So, a necessary being must be purely actual and devoid of all potential in its existence. I’m going to assume this is true for the next argument.

So, basically, the argument runs as follows: The necessary being has no potential in its existence or being. So, it cannot ‘be’ any other way then it actually is, since it has no potential ‘to be’ or exist another way, being purely actual and devoid of all potential in its existence. But, a potency is just some that ‘could be’ or ‘can be’. Thus, the necessary being cannot have any potency whatsoever, because then it can ‘be’ other then what it actually is i.e. it would have some potential in its existence or being.

Now, you say that such a necessary being could have accidents and could be in potency with respect to accidental features. To make it simple, let’s say Socrates is a necessary being with no potency in his existence. But, he undergoes an accidental change by gaining a new hair colour. I contend that this is impossible. Because if Socrates gains a new hair colour that he previously did not have, he went from existing in a certain way to existing in another way. Namely, he went from potentially existing with the new hair colour to actually existing with the new hair colour. So, in this accidental change, Socrates has changed in his being. But, this cannot happen because Socrates is a necessary being and has no potency in his existence. The conclusion from this is that a necessary being cannot undergo accidental changes either, since that would entail having potency in its existence.

Let’s first get clear on what necessity and contingency are.

X necessarily exists (obtains, is true, etc.) iff X cannot fail to exist (obtain, be true, etc.). In other words, X must be; it cannot not be; it exists in all possible worlds.

X contingently exists iff X can fail to exist. In other words, X doesn’t have to be; it can fail to be; it exists in some but not all possible worlds.

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With these definitions in mind, let’s look at the first question:

“Firstly, do you accept that a necessary being would have to be purely actual and devoid of all potential in its existence?”

This is a good question. I would say it depends on whether eternalism or presentism is true. If eternalism is true, then something could necessarily exist (simpliciter) without existing at all times. This is because under eternalism all times are equally actual and exist simpliciter, and hence whatever exists at one time t but not another time t* will still exist simpliciter at t*.

Now suppose there are only three possible worlds (in all of which eternalism is true). Suppose such worlds each have three times: t1, t2, and t3. Call these worlds w1, w2, and w3.

Suppose there is a particle, Pete. Suppose Pete exists indexed to t1 but not indexed to t2 and t3 at w1. Suppose Pete exists indexed to t2 but not indexed to t1 and t3 at w2. And suppose Pete exists indexed to t3 but not indexed to t1 and t2 at w3.

Now, Pete is a necessary being: Pete exists (simpliciter) in all possible worlds. But Pete still has potentials pertaining to its existence, since Pete’s temporally indexed existence can vary from possible world to possible world. If w1 is actual, Pete has the potential pertaining to its existence instead to exist indexed to t2 or t3. This of course assumes that an existential temporally-indexed potency is a potency pertaining to existence.

So, here we have a situation wherein we have a necessary being (Pete) that still has potentials pertaining to its existence, and hence Pete is not purely actual in respect of its existence. Admittedly, of course, if we restrict ourselves to existence simpliciter (and not existence as temporally indexed), then Pete cannot fail to exist simpliciter and hence has no potential not to exist simpliciter. But this depends on what the questioner understands by potentials relating or pertaining to the very existence of the substance to which they belong.

Under presentism, however, temporally indexed existence is co-extensional with existence simpliciter, and so a situation like Pete’s could not arise.

The point to realize for now is that whether a necessary being is purely actual in respect of its existence depends on (i) whether eternalism or presentism is true, and (ii) how we understand the term “potential relating or pertaining to the very existence of the substance to which it belongs”.

But restricting ourselves to existence simpliciter, it will certainly be the case that a necessary being (henceforth N) will have no potential not to exist simpliciter. N cannot fail to exist simpliciter and hence has no potential to fail to exist simpliciter. In that sense, N is purely actual in respect of its existence simpliciter.

Let’s turn to the next claim of the questioner:

If something had potency in its existence, then it would require an actualizer of its existence from something already actual.”

This depends on what the questioner means. The mere fact that X is actual at t but has the (timeless) potential not to be actual at t does not by itself entail that X requires a causal actualizer of its existence at t. In addition, the mere possibility of being otherwise does not and cannot entail the actualization of a potency within that which could be otherwise, since (e.g.) God could have acted otherwise in his creative act and yet it would be absurd to say God or God’s actions require the actualization of a potency for their obtainment. Hence, the mere possibility of X’s not being actually existent at t (when X is in fact actually existent at t) does not and cannot by itself entail the actualization of X’s potential for existence at t.

Moreover, the only thing we are warranted in concluding from X’s being actual at t but having the (timeless) potential not to be actual at t is that X’s being actual at t is a contingent state of affairs. And that does not by itself necessitate the need for a causal actualizer but rather only the need for an explanation — and not all explanations are in terms of concurrently operative existential sustaining causation. X’s actual existence at t could be explained in terms of that which brought X into existence in the past plus an existential inertial tendency; or X’s actuality at t could be explained by one or more temporally prior states of X; and so on.

Let’s turn next to another claim of the questioner:

“But, if this is the case, then it wouldn’t be necessary as it would depend on another for its existence.”

But this is false. Necessary existence doesn’t by itself entail independent existence, and hence dependent existence doesn’t by itself entail non-necessity (i.e. contingency). Here is why:

X could be eternally causally dependent on Y, Y could necessarily exist, and Y could necessarily be causally operative in such-and-such a manner so as to produce X (i.e. Y deterministically causes X). In this case, X cannot fail to exist, but yet it is still existentially dependent on Y.

Let’s turn to the crucial claim of the questioner:

The necessary being has no potential in its existence or being. So, it cannot ‘be’ any other way then it actually is, since it has no potential ‘to be’ or exist another way, being purely actual and devoid of all potential in its existence.”

But this is question-begging. For N simply has no potential to fail to exist simpliciter; that says absolutely nothing about the particular manner or mode of N’s existence, whether N can exist under various different accidental modes or manners of existence, and so on.

Let me expand on why this is question-begging. The criticism merely assumes that N’s being necessarily existent entails that all of the particular intrinsic attributes of N are necessarily existent. But this is to beg the question at issue, since the very question at hand is whether a necessarily existent thing can have intrinsic attributes that are not necessarily existent (i.e. accidental and hence can fail to exist).

There is a subtle equivocation of the term “be” or “exist”. In one sense, “be” or “exist” apply to the various ways N exists. For instance, N may exist as red-haired or as brown-haired. But there is a different sense of “be” or “exist”, and it is simply “whether or not N is within reality,” i.e. whether or not N exists simpliciter. This second sense makes absolutely no reference to the particular mode or manner in which N exists. To this second sense, it doesn’t matter whether N has red or brown hair; all that matters is that N is within reality (simpliciter). And N would be in reality regardless of whether N was in reality under one mode or aspect (red hair) as opposed to another mode or aspect (brown hair).

The objection merely assumes that being necessary in the second sense of “be” or “exist” means (or entails) being necessary in the first sense of “be” or “exist”. But not only has this assumption been wholly unjustified, it’s also patently question-begging in this dialectical context wherein this very inference is what is at issue. It’s the very question at issue whether A entails B:

A: N is necessarily within reality.

B: The particular mode or manner of N’s existence necessarily obtains (i.e. all of N’s real or intrinsic attributes cannot be otherwise).

And I would argue that it is demonstrable that A (by itself) does not and cannot entail B. Let N (the necessary being) be Pete, but this time let’s ignore philosophy of time and just say Pete is eternal. So, we have an eternal, necessarily existent atom, Pete. Pete cannot fail to be within reality. Now, Pete is changeable in various ways — Pete can change position in space, he can change in temporal location (simply by persisting in time), he can change in velocity, and so on. But no such change entails that Pete himself ceases or fails to exist. Pete persists through such changes and hence still exists simpliciter throughout such changes. And what this shows is that a being which necessarily exists doesn’t have to have a necessary mode or manner of existence; its mode or manner of existence can change so long as such changes don’t constitute substantial changes. For if they don’t constitute substantial changes, then the being will still exist simpliciter and hence will not fail to exist (simpliciter). Hence, this is perfectly compatible with necessary existence simpliciter.

In summary, it is (i) unjustified, (ii) question-begging, and (iii) demonstrably false that A entails B.

The questioner points out: “Because if Socrates gains a new hair colour that he previously did not have, he went from existing in a certain way to existing in another way.”

But that’s the whole point. Sure, he changed in the way, manner, or mode of existence. But he didn’t fail to exist. He didn’t cease to exist simpliciter. The substance (Socrates) still persisted through the change. He did not cease to exist. So, changing in respect of his hair color doesn’t threaten his necessary existence. He does not cease to exist upon gaining a new hair color. (We are supposing arguendo that he necessarily exists in the sense of cannot fail to be within reality qua the substance he is).

So, in this accidental change, Socrates has changed in his being.”

But this is to commit the same equivocation as before. In one sense, he changed in his ‘being’ — namely, his manner or mode of existence is different. But in another, he certainly did not change in his being. He still exists qua the numerically identical substance he was before the accidental change. This example is wholly irrelevant since it targets the former but not the latter sense of being.

Author: Joe

Email: NaturalisticallyInclined@gmail.com

1 thought on “From Necessary Being to Unchangeable Being?

  1. Pingback: A Plethora Problems Reconsidered: Discussing Classical Theism | Majesty of Reason

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