Feser on Schmid on the Aristotelian proof

Feser has recently responded to some of my work on the Aristotelian proof. I thank Feser for his engagement — much love ❤ .

Real photo.

Before I start, here is decisive proof that Feser’s Aristotelian proof fails.

Here’s an informal outline of this post. Buckle up, it’s long. But that’s how I roll. (You could say… that’s how I Rickroll. *Ba dum tsss*) Anyway, I begin by addressing Feser’s suspicions about me being the person behind the anonymous and annoying requests. I then summarize my thus-far publicized criticisms of the Aristotelian proof. I next systematically proceed through Feser’s blog post. Finally, I articulate new, thus-far unpublicized criticisms of the Aristotelian proof.

Here’s a formal outline:

A tip for navigation: If you would like to jump around or refer backwards or forwards to sections, use your computer’s command F function to find the relevant section(s).

1 Putting something to bed

Feser writes: “Until this week, I hadn’t read any of this material, though for some time now I’ve been getting an increasing number of requests that I comment on it.  Many of these have been anonymous and weirdly insistent or adulatory toward Schmid, which made me suspect sock puppetry rather than genuine widespread interest.”

This is odd. I don’t have the time to persistently bug Feser, and if he’s willing to take me at my word, none of these requests come from me. When Cameron Bertuzzi reached out to him asking for a dialogue on YouTube — something I didn’t ask Cameron to do, mind you — Feser responded by speculating (not endorsing, but also not rejecting) this odd hypothesis. I immediately told Cameron to explicitly tell Feser that it’s not me doing it. Here are some photos:

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2/2

[Notes: the email from Feser is hidden because I don’t have his permission to share its contents.]

Indeed, I have made other comments elsewhere in the same vein. Take, for instance, the following comment on my Aristotelian proof video:

And finally — for kicks and giggles — here’s some banter on Facebook:

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Edit: Some have claimed that Feser didn’t say I am responsible for the sock puppetry. Here’s my response:

First, let’s get clear about my claim: I claimed that Feser has suggested/intimated/raised suspicions about me either making many of these anonymous comments or convincing others to do so. And this is true: he suggests/intimates/raises suspicions this in his email to Cameron, in which he writes — precisely in regard to the influx of anonymous requests — “I’ve wondered whether he’s trying to get my attention (or asking other people to do so!)”.

[Side note: But also, it’s pretty obvious elsewhere that he seems to be implying some suggestion/suspicion/intimation/insinuation that I am behind some of the anonymous requests [whether doing them directly or persuading others to do them]. In image 1/3 above, for instance, he basically said/hinted ‘or maybe it’s just one person, hmmm….., and this person seems to have a Joe Schmid obsession, hmmmmm….’. [Pretty much everyone in the Facebook post [from which 2/3 and 3/3 were taken] recognized that this was being subtly intimated/insinuated.] But you can make of this fact what you will.]

Finally, we should remember that I never said Feser actually believes this or actually says I am behind it. He just gives some suggestion/intimation/suspicion/insinuation. But that alone warrants my section ‘putting something to bed’, since no one likes receiving suggestion/intimation/suspicion/insinuation that would, if true, entail a bad character.

Fin.


I’ve only commented once on Feser’s blog in regard to my work [and have never emailed]. It was back when my IJPR paper came out online first in September of 2020. And it wasn’t anonymous — I simply stated that I had published a paper engaging with his work. Nothing since then.

Indeed, let’s perform some hypothesis comparison.

H1: A person who has a [somewhat] sizeable online viewership and following (over 3.4k subs on YouTube and over 1k blog views a week) makes informed, respectful, and substantive criticisms of Feser’s work; this sizeable following finds many such criticisms respectable and/or plausible, and some small percentage are genuinely curious to hear Feser respond. Not knowing that people have already asked, they ask him to respond.

H2: A full-time college student (who has papers to read and take notes on, R&R’s to submit back to journals, papers to referee for journals, a book manuscript to complete and discuss with academic publishers, a YouTube channel and blog to keep up with, familial obligations, and so on ad nauseam) has the time, desire, and effort to persistently and annoyingly bug Feser with pestering requests.

I think H1 is obviously far better than H2. And it explains a lot more. It explains far better the particular timing of the requests Feser received. I have been pumping out content on Feser’s proofs since early 2020. But only recently has there been an upsurge of requests. This is really surprising if I’m the kind of person to do what H2 says. But it’s not at all surprising on H1 when we remember that I recently made an over-2k-time-viewed video on the Aristotelian proof. This nicely explains the upsurge. [I don’t say ‘over-2k-time-viewed’ for purposes of bragging. First, that’s not a big number when it comes to YouTube. It’s pretty pathetic in the YouTube sphere. Second, I don’t care about the number of views; I care about serving people and helping them think critically about the relevant issues. And third, the reason I say ‘over-2k-viewed’ is because it is not at all surprising that out of the hundreds or thousands that watched the video, some of them would reach out to Feser.]

H1 also explains my testimonial evidence in this blog post, the photo evidence presented above [one photo shows a keen self-awareness of how busy Feser is, which would be surprising on H2; another photo also shows that I know how to spell ‘Aristotelian’, unlike some of these anonymous commenters], and the fact that I’m simply not the kind of person to do something like H2. (Ask around; that ain’t how I (Rick)roll.)

I could go on and on about the merits of H1 over H2. Indeed, I am absolutely certain H1 is true while H2 is false. But you don’t have the private evidence I do, so I need to try and convince you somehow that H1 is far, far more plausible than H2.

Why does all this matter? Well, it has to do with my character. I don’t quite like it when people suggest or intimate or raise suspicions that I might be persistently bugging others with annoying requests that are adulatory toward myself. That indicates self-absorption, hubris, lack of empathy for Feser’s life position [him having a huge family to take care of, books to write, other projects to complete, etc.], and other quite negative personality traits. In short, I care about my character. And so I think we can and should put H2 to bed.

With the children put to bed, it’s time for the adults to party. So let’s get to it.

2 A guide and summary of my (publicized) work on the Aristotelian proof

My guide and summary will be reasonably brief. I strongly advise everyone interested in the relevant criticism to click on the supporting material I provide. I include all of this because many people reading this post will be entirely unaware of the material I’ve already publicized on the argument. The links will contextualize the present blog post. I’ll also be referencing them later on occasion. And, most importantly, they will help serve people in their pursuit of Truth.

2.1 A comprehensive guide

Here is a comprehensive guide to everything I’ve made public on the Aristotelian proof and related issues. This is not a summary of my criticisms. It’s a repository of links directing you to the relevant material.

2.1.1 YouTube

(1) I discuss and critically examine stage one of the Aristotelian proof in this video. (See also the document in the description for an articulation of two problems that are either underdiscussed or not discussed in the video. I develop the second problem later in the present blog post (cf. Section 4.1).)

(2) I discuss and critically assess all five of Feser’s proofs from 58:56 to 1:55:56 in this video. I discuss the Aristotelian proof in particular from 1:04:26 to 1:24:55.

(3) I discuss existential inertia in four videos: (a) A User’s Guide, (b) Response videos to Intellectual Conservatism (Part 1 and Part 2), and (c) the end of my discussion with Oppy on the nature and purpose of arguments.

2.1.2 Blog

(1) I have written on existential inertia (including some metaphysical accounts thereof) in my response to Hsiao and Sanders here.

(2) I respond to Nemes regarding existential inertia here.

(3) I discuss existential inertia in my response to RM and HoH here.

(4) I respond to Thomistic Disputations on existential inertia here.

(5) I cover existential inertia in sections of this post, too.

2.1.3 Published articles + articles under review + scholarly monograph

(1) I critically assess the Aristotelian proof in two published papers, one in Sophia and one in IJPR.

(2) I have a scholarly monograph [entitled Existential Inertia and Classical Theistic Proofs] under discussion with publishers on all five of Feser’s proofs [and other stuff, of course]. Of particular relevance is the material on the Aristotelian proof. Portions of the monograph concerning the Aristotelian proof will be made available later in the present blog post. Here is the extended table of contents:

(3) I have two papers under review on the metaphysics of existential inertia and how it relates to contemporary philosophy of physics (e.g., wavefunction monism as developed by thinkers like Jill North and Alyssa Ney) and classical theistic proofs. Small portions of such papers will be made available later in the present blog post.

2.2 A summary of my thus-far-publicized criticisms

Again, I’m going to be exceedingly brief here. Read the documents linked for a more extended discussion of the relevant criticism(s). Seriously, check out the linked documents — they’re chock full of really fun philosophy. They might change your mind about (or at least sharpen your mind when it comes to) the Aristotelian proof.

[For those curious, I articulate most of these criticisms in this chapter of my book — check it out! The chapter is my systematic appraisal of stage one of the Aristotelian proof.]

First, the Existential Inertia Thesis (EIT) undermines premise (7) of the Aristotelian proof.

  • My IJPR paper on this criticism is here. (My thoughts have developed considerably since writing this, though.)
  • Finally, check out the links from Section 2.1.

The next seven criticisms (2-8) are found in my Sophia article. In many cases, though, the linked document will contain new information not contained in the Sophia article.

Second, premise (7) is unmotivated. I explain this in this document.

Third, past things can and do legitimately explain the existence of present things, and nothing said on behalf of premise (7) gives adequate reason to think such explanations false or inadequate when it comes to explaining the non-first moments of something’s existence in terms of its existence at previous moments. I explain this in much greater depth later in this blog post as well as in Sophia and IJPR papers.

Fourth, a plausible and defensible account of the conditions under which a sustaining cause is required undercuts premise (7). I explain this in this document.

Fifth, nothing said on behalf of the proof rules out persistence’s being an absence of change—in which case, non-first moments of objects’ existence are not in the scope of the proof’s causal principle. I explain this in this document.

Sixth, premise (7) treats creation as involving some potency for existence that is brought to actuality, however classical theism is arguably incompatible with this. I explain this in this document. I also develop this criticism much more fully in the present blog post in Section 3, sub-section “A Tension?”.

Seventh, merely from the fact that there is some first cause whose existence is presently unactualized, it doesn’t follow that this cause is unactualizable and purely actual in all respects. In this regard, I identify three non-sequiturs present in the Aristotelian proof. I explain these non-sequiturs — and I address the two places in Feser (2017) where Feser comments on such non-sequiturs — in this document. I also discuss these in much greater depth in the present blog post in Section 3, “The purely actual actualizer”.

Eighth, the argument unjustifiably assumes the impossibility of changeable, necessarily actual beings. I explain this in this document. I also explain this in much greater depth later in this blog post.

My ninth criticism, adumbrated in source (2) from Section 2.1.1, is that the proof assumes the falsity of eternalism. To the extent that one finds eternalism plausible or rationally defensible, to that extent one has reason to reject the Aristotelian proof. I explain this criticism further in this document. Therein I also address what Feser (2017) says in response to the objection from eternalism.

My tenth criticism is that the Aristotelian proof actually entails EIT and thereby defeats itself. I will explain this criticism in Section 4.1.

My eleventh criticism is that the Aristotelian proof assumes pluralism about being. But we should reject pluralism. I explain this criticism in Section 4.2.

My twelfth criticism is that nearly every stage two inference fails, in which case the argument does not deliver God’s existence. I explain this criticism in Section 4.3.

My thirteenth criticism is a Moorean shift: if one has good reason to think classical theism is false, then one can simply negate the conclusion and derive, via modus tollens, the disjunction of the negations of the premises. I give a 4-hour scholarly presentation of arguments from abstracta and modal collapse [indeed, over 15 modal collapse arguments, most of which I defend but the rest of which I criticize] against classical theism here. Parts 2 and 3 of this series are forthcoming. To give you guys a flavor of one Moorean shift-esque argument, I’ve chosen one fun/interesting modal collapse objection I thought up. Test it. Probe it. See where Reason leads. Click this link to read it. (It’s not a long document, btw.) [Note, finally, that I’ve also published on problems for CT. See, e.g., these two papers (one, two).]

3 Feser’s blog post

In this section, I tackle every criticism in Feser’ blog post, responding to each in turn.

Concurrent actualization

Feser writes:

“The basic idea is this. Consider a collection of particles of type P which constitute water at time t.  Though they actually constitute water at t, there is nothing in the particles qua particles of type P that suffices to make them water rather than one of the other alternatives mentioned.  Again, qua particles of type P they have the potential to constitute water, or separate quantities of hydrogen and oxygen, or some other substance or aggregate of substances.  So, there must at t be something distinct from the collection which actualizes its potential to be water, specifically.”

Now, there are at least three problems with this.

First, the implicit causal principle adduced in this paragraph is simply not the causal principle articulated and defended in (2017, ch. 1). I actually addressed a nearly-identical point in my original manuscript for the Sophia article, but that manuscript was almost 11k words in total, and Sophia was extremely strict about making the article less than 8k words. Naturally, then, I chopped stuff, and addressing a nearly-identical point to Feser’s present point was left on the chopping board. Nevertheless, I saved the portion of the paper, and I shall articulate right now what I said therein.

One might say that the water’s existence consists in or results from a reduction of potency to act in the sense that some of the essential parts of water—its underlying matter, say, or its constituent molecules and atoms and whatnot—could be otherwise, such that the water could fail to exist. If, for instance, the oxygen and hydrogen atoms were separated, the water wouldn’t exist. Because the essential parts of water have the potential to be otherwise (e.g., to make up something other than water, or to be absent from reality altogether), it follows that the water has some potential to exist which is realized or actualized as opposed to other potentials that aren’t realized or actualized.

But, crucially, this is not the kind of ‘potency-to-act-reduction’ that Feser needs for his argument to get off the ground. Nowhere in Feser (2017, ch. 1) does Feser justify a causal principle to the effect that ‘if there are a range of potentials p1, p2, … pn, only one of which can be actual[ized] (at a given time), and one of them, pi, is actual[ized], then there is some cause which makes pi actual.’

One reason this couldn’t be the causal principle at play in the Aristotelian proof is that it would straightforwardly debar the inference to a purely actual being. For suppose that the unactualized actualizer is simply a necessary but non-purely-actual being, A. In that case, it is simply false that there are a range of potentials when it comes to the very being, existence, or actuality of A, since A is necessarily actually existent. It thus has no potential pertaining to its very substantial being or existence (e.g., potentials to cease to exist, to begin to exist, or to be absent from reality altogether). Thus, if the causal principle at play in the Aristotelian proof were the one previously articulated, then the Aristotelian proof would be incapable of justifying the need for a sustaining, actualizing cause of A. (Why? Because the antecedent of the causal principle is simply false when it comes to A’s very being or existence—there isn’t a range of potentials concerning A’s very substantial existence. And so one cannot infer, solely by means of said causal principle, that A has a cause of its existence.) And if the Aristotelian proof were incapable of justifying the need for a sustaining, actualizing cause of A, then it simply couldn’t show that the unactualized actualizer is purely actual, since—for all the argument shows—A could be the unactualized actualizer, and A is not purely actual.

A second reason the aforementioned causal principle couldn’t be the one at play in the Aristotelian proof is that it is simply not one that Feser articulates or defends in his (2017, ch. 1). Instead, Feser argues that any change—any actualization of potential or reduction from potency to act—requires a causal actualizer (2017, pp. 19-22). But this is crucially different from the earlier causal principle, since the earlier makes no reference to change but instead merely to cross-world difference: if one possibility among a range of incompatible possibilities is actual, then there must be some cause that explains why the actual possibility is, well, actual. This is a stronger principle than the principle that changes require causes.

Second, the inference to the claim captured in “So…” is a non-sequitur. [Granted, Feser is giving a basic idea and so not intending to justify or fully flesh out the relevant inferences contained therein. But registering the problems afflicting the basic idea illustrates the work that needs to be done in a more fleshed out formulation.] Merely from the facts that the collection as such (qua collection) does not suffice for the collection’s actually constituting water at t, the only thing that follows is that there must be some other sufficient condition(s) for the collection’s constituting water at t. What doesn’t follow is that this other sufficient condition(s) is a sustaining/conserving actualizing cause. I would argue that the only thing needed as the other sufficient condition(s) is simply an explanation of why the collection constitutes water at t. But there are whole swathes of explanations of why the collection constitutes water at t that don’t adduce some outside sustaining or conserving efficient cause. I alluded to a variety of them earlier [cf. the bullet points under the first criticism from Section 2.2], but in case you’re curious, here’s a summary with the links again:

(a) A tendency or disposition to persist in existence (à la tendency-disposition accounts, which can be construed in metaphysically heavyweight or lightweight ways);
(b)  Transtemporal explanatory relations obtaining among the successive stages of objects’ lives or among their temporal parts (à la transtemporal accounts);
(c)   Laws of nature that govern or otherwise explain the evolution of systems and/or objects over time (à la law-based accounts);
(d)  The primitive metaphysical necessity of the inertial thesis (à la propositional necessity accounts);
(e)   The metaphysically necessary existence of some foundational temporal concrete object(s), such as the neo-classical theistic God or various naturalist-friendly proposals (à la objectual necessity accounts); and
(f)   Persistence being the absence of change and so adequately explained by the absence of sufficiently destructive change-inducing factors (à la no-change accounts — cf. also Section 4.1 of the present blog post wherein I argue that the Aristotelian proof entails EIT).

To be sure, there are more besides. I’m simply giving you a flavor of the explanations on offer that make no appeal to conserving or sustaining causes. (Want to pursue them further? Click on those hyperlinks.)

Third — and this is kinda double counting, but I deem it important enough to separate as a distinct objection in its own right — the very causal principle Feser implicitly adduces in the relevant passage seems to undermine the Aristotelian proof. For the causal principle at hand — to reiterate what I said above — would straightforwardly debar the inference to a purely actual being. For suppose that the unactualized actualizer is simply a necessary but non-purely-actual being, A. In that cause, it is simply false that there are a range of potentials when it comes to the very being, existence, or actuality of A, since A is necessarily actually existent. It thus has no potential pertaining to its very substantial being or existence (e.g., potentials to cease to exist, to begin to exist, or to be absent from reality altogether). Thus, if the causal principle at play in the Aristotelian proof were the one Feser seems implicitly to adduce in the quoted passage, then the Aristotelian proof would be incapable of justifying the need for a sustaining, actualizing cause of A. (Why? Because the antecedent of the causal principle is simply false when it comes to A’s very being or existence—there isn’t a range of potentials concerning A’s very substantial existence. And so one cannot infer, solely by means of said causal principle, that A has a cause of its existence.) And if the Aristotelian proof were incapable of justifying the need for a sustaining, actualizing cause of A, then it simply couldn’t show that the unactualized actualizer is purely actual, since—for all the argument shows—A could be the unactualized actualizer, and A is not purely actual.

Think about it this way. It was precisely because the collection (qua collection) did not suffice for the collection’s actually constituting water that — by Feser’s lights — there must be some sustaining or actualizing cause [apart from the collection itself] of the collection’s actually existing as [constituting] water. But this motivation for a sustaining cause is simply irrelevant if there is some fact about the entity in question (qua that entity) that suffices for its existence. And this is precisely what I and a whole host of other non-classical-theists [both non-theists and non-classical theists] think is the case: the foundation of reality is one or more fundamental, necessarily existent entities with potentials for accidental [though obviously not substantial] change. It is simply false, of such entities, that no fact about them suffices for their existence. This is unlike the case of the collection. Thus, even granting that the collection needs a sustaining or conserving cause, the very motivation that led Feser to demand such a sustaining cause undercuts his inference to the pure actuality of the unactualized being.

Feser then goes on to identify three alleged problems with one of the points I made in the paper. I will respond to each of his three rejoinders in turn.

Feser’s first rejoinder:

“First, Schmid is wrong to claim that my characterization of the situation is not neutral.  The implication is that no one who did not already agree with my argument would characterize what is going on as the potential of a collection of particles of type P to be water “being actualized” at t – because this would entail that there is a cause of this actualization, which is precisely what is at issue.

But that is not true.  Someone (a Humean, for example) could agree that the potential in question is being actualized at t, and still go on to claim that there is no cause of this actualization – that it just happens without anything making it happen.  To be sure, I don’t for a moment think that this would be a plausible claim (for the reasons I give in the book when criticizing Hume, defending PSR, and so on).  But that is beside the present point, which is that someone who does not already agree with the overall argument could nevertheless concede the claim that Schmid is criticizing.”

Once more, I actually addressed a nearly-identical point in my original manuscript for the Sophia article, but that manuscript had to be considerably shortened. Nevertheless, I shall articulate right now what I said therein (with some expansions):

Perhaps Feser would say that the expression ‘actualized’ does not, after all, presuppose a relation of (sustaining) causal actualization. Compare: if I say that the onions in a certain pan are being caramelized, I am describing something about the onions themselves, not their cause. (We might go on to say that something must be causing it to happen, but that’s a separate point.)

It is true that ‘being actualized’ does not necessarily signify a causal notion. But I have two points to make here.

First, given Feser’s use of ‘actualized’ throughout Feser (2017, ch. 1), it certainly seems like ‘actualized’ means ‘causally actualized’. Consider what Feser writes on p. 27:

“Now since what is being explained in this case is the actualization of a thing’s potential for existence, the sort of “first” cause we are talking about is one which can actualize the potential for other things to exist without having to have its own existence actualized by anything.”

Where Feser says that the first cause ‘can actualize the potential for other things to exist’, Feser is obviously intending to convey a causal sense of ‘actualize’, i.e. to cause or bring about a reduction from potency to act. Where Feser says ‘without having to have its own existence actualized by anything’, again Feser is obviously intending to convey a causal sense of ‘actualized’. The first cause doesn’t have its existence actualized [i.e., caused] by anything. Indeed, suppose Feser just meant ‘is actual’ by ‘actualized’. Then it would seem exceedingly strange to say — as Feser repeatedly does in (2017, ch. 1) — that the first cause is unactualized, i.e., not actualized. For that would amount to a denial that the first cause is actual!

What this shows is that Feser quite clearly uses ‘actualized’ on many occasions in Feser (2017, ch. 1) in a causal sense. So I am right to point out that to describe the situation as one in which the water is actualized is to describe the situation in a problematically non-neutral way.

If Feser wants to say he also uses ‘actualized’ in his chapter not to denote causal actualization, that is fine by me. But then the criticism is simply that Feser’s chapter is rather profoundly fraught with ambiguity. In any case, my purpose in bringing the neutral vs. non-neutral parsing of ‘actualized’ to light was precisely to disambiguate these different senses of ‘actualized’.

Anyway — and this is my second point — suppose ‘actualized’ isn’t (automatically) being used to signify a causal notion. The important thing to see is that this doesn’t help Feser’s case. For if Feser is not (automatically) adducing a relation of causal actualization in his use of ‘actualized’, then the relevant criticism stands: merely phrasing the situation as one involving the potential’s being ‘actualized’ is perfectly compatible—for all Feser has shown at the relevant point in the chapter, that is—with this being a case of water’s being presently actual but not concurrently causally sustained or actualized.

Regardless, the point about disambiguating the causal vs. non-causal senses of ‘actualized’ was simply to point out that merely from the fact that the collection’s ‘potential’ to constitute water at t is actualized [non-causal sense] among a range of alternative, mutually exclusive ‘potentials’ to compose other things (or nothing at all) at t does not entail that the water [or the collection], at t, is concurrently-causally actualized [causal sense] by some extrinsic sustaining efficient cause. And nor does it entail that the water’s [or collection’s] being actual at t results from some kind of reduction-or-transition-from-potential-being-to-actual-being.

I conclude, then, that Feser’s first rejoinder fails. Onto the second rejoinder.

Feser’s second rejoinder is longer. I will take it in bits and pieces.

Feser writes: “A second problem is that Schmid’s proposed alternative way of characterizing the situation is incoherent.  For the claim that “the matter’s potential to exist as water is presently actual right now” (emphasis added) suggests that the collection of particles of type P is both potentially water and actually water in the same respect and at the same time. But it is a well-known Aristotelian-Thomistic thesis – one which is famously given expression in Aquinas’s First Way, and which Schmid does not challenge – that nothing can be both potential and actual in the same respect and at the same time.”

This is wrong. For one thing, I’m simply following Feser’s own articulation but removing the ambiguity in ‘actualized’. Consider what Feser writes on p. 26: “After all, given the chemistry of the water, the matter that makes it up also has the potential to exist instead as distinct quantities of oxygen and hydrogen. But that is not the potential that is being actualized right now; instead, it is that matter’s potential to exist as water that is being actualized right now.”

Feser’s example here is one wherein the water is presently actual, as is the matter’s existing as water. Both of these are presently actual. But then Feser himself goes on to speak of ‘the matter’s potential to exist as water that is being actualized right now’. Which is it? Is the matter potentially existent as water right now? Or is it actually existent as water right now? This is especially pressing in light of what Feser says in his first rejoinder to my point. There, Feser disavows an automatically causal sense of ‘actualized’, leaving me to conclude that he instead simply means the non-causal sense ‘is actual’. [This is the only plausible non-causal sense, it seems to me.] But in that case, Feser himself quite literally commits the same alleged incoherence he suggests I commit. For now the quoted claim above just amounts to saying the matter’s potential to exist as water is presently actual. And that’s pretty much exactly what I said. I’m simply following in Feser’s footsteps in the passage with which Feser takes issue.

[Indeed, for those who are paying careful attention, you can see that I’ve already anticipated this whole dialectic. I began in my paper by noting an ambiguity in ‘actualized’. It could be a causal sense [as in: is causally actualized, i.e., caused to reduce from potency to act] or else a non-causal sense [as in: is (presently) actual]. The former is non-neutral in an untoward and problematically question-begging way. So, I adopted the latter interpretation for the paper. Adopting this interpretation, I simply employed Feser’s own parlance (as seen in the quote on p. 26) while replacing his ambiguous ‘actualized’ with the clearer ‘is actual’. And — bear this mind — Feser himself seems to commit to a non-causal sense of ‘actualized’ in his first rejoinder to me.]

Thus, it is Feser who is making incoherent claims. I simply follow his footsteps in my characterization.

Now, Feser does comment on whether his formulation is incoherent. Let’s see what he says:

“My own characterization of the situation, unlike Schmid’s, does not imply otherwise.  Again, what I say is that at t, the collection of particles of type P considered just in respect of being particles of type P is only potentially water (and potentially other things too).  The collection is actually water only when considered as particles of type P together with the actualization of the potential in question (which, I also claim, requires a cause to make it happen – though, again, that is an additional thesis).  So, while I say that the particles are potential and actual at the same time, I do not say that they are potential and actual at the same time and in the same respect.”

I have three responses. First, this is simply not how Feser articulates the matter in (2017, ch. 1). Feser simply doesn’t make a distinction therein between the particles of type P qua particles of type P being merely potentially [not actually] water (on the one hand) versus (on the other hand) the particles of type P qua particles of type P in conjunction with the actualization of said potential being actually [and not potentially] water.

Instead, I have to work with passages like the one from p. 26: “After all, given the chemistry of the water, the matter that makes it up also has the potential to exist instead as distinct quantities of oxygen and hydrogen. But that is not the potential that is being actualized right now; instead, it is that matter’s potential to exist as water that is being actualized right now.”

Retrospectively — after reading Feser’s blog post — one might be able to barely squeeze out an implicit distinction between (a) the matter as such (i.e., considered only as a collection of (say) particles) being potentially water versus (b) the matter being actually water when considering the conjunction of (i) the matter as such being potentially water and (ii) the relevant potential being actualized. But this ‘retroactive squeezing’ is simply not what comes across — at least to me — on the most natural interpretation of the text at hand. The text at hand seems rather straightforwardly to say:

(1) Matter has the potential to exist as water at t, or to exist as x at t, or etc.
(2) But the matter’s potential to exist as water at t is being actualized at t.

Now, we can ask: what does ‘being actualized (at t)’ amount to? By my lights, any plausible disambiguation will at least entail ‘is actual’. For instance, even if it signified a causal notion, a cause’s actualizing x (at t) still makes x such that x is actual (at t). And if it doesn’t signify a causal notion, the only plausible interpretation remaining, it seems, is simply ‘is actual (at t)’. I am left to conclude that ‘being actualized (at t)’ — under any plausible disambiguation — will either mean or entail ‘is actual at t’. But this just makes (2) into:

(2*) But the matter’s potential to exist as water at t is actual at t.

And (2*) is incoherent by Feser’s lights.

So, even if Feser’s articulation in his blog post avoids the incoherence problem, it seems (to me, at least) that very natural interpretations of what is actually said in Feser (2017, ch. 1) do not avoid the incoherence problem. And, of course, it is no mark against my paper that an articulation not found in (2017, ch. 1) avoids the incoherence.

But, second, what Feser says here doesn’t remove the incoherence. For what is problematically incoherent is not that “The collection is actually water only when considered as particles of type P together with the actualization of the potential in question”. Rather, what is problematically incoherent is precisely Feser’s usage of ‘potential for x being actualized’ [where ‘x’ could be ‘existence’ or ‘existence as water’ or whatever]. We’ve seen that ‘actualized’ is ambiguous. It could mean either ‘is causally actualized [i.e. is causally brought from potency to act]’ or ‘is actual’. If it means ‘is actual’, then Feser runs into the incoherence, since then Feser is simply saying precisely what I said [viz. that some potential for x is actual]. By contrast, if it means ‘is causally actualized’, then my original criticism goes through, since then Feser does, indeed, problematically parse the situation in a non-neutral way.

Third, even if it did remove the incoherence, I can make an exactly parallel removal in my case, and my central point will remain intact. If Feser can render (2) as his newly-propounded conjunctive claim [that ‘the matter is actually water when considering the conjunction of (i) the matter as such being potentially water and (ii) the relevant potential being actualized’], then I can similarly render my problematic-by-Feser’s-lights passage in the conjunctive way. My overarching point will then simply become:

Overarching point: merely from the facts that (i) the matter as such is potentially water and (ii) the relevant potential is actualized, it doesn’t follow that the actualization in question is one resulting form some kind of extrinsic sustaining or conserving efficient cause; for there are whole swathes of legitimate explanations for this potential’s actualization that don’t adduce such causes. [Cf. my points earlier.]

Now, Feser recognizes that I could make an exactly parallel removal in my case. He claims that “that way of putting it would really amount to returning to my formulation after all, rather than offering an alternative formulation.” Here, though, Feser doesn’t seem to recognize that (i) even if this amounts to returning to his formulation, my overarching point remains entirely intact, and (ii) Feser’s own formulation, as I have argued above, is not contained in Feser (2017, ch. 1).

Here’s my final response to Feser’s charge of incoherence: we can simply recast what I say in terms of a possibility rather than a potential. For while something cannot be both potential and actual at the same time and in the same respect, something can be both possible and actual in the same respect and at the same time [indeed, actuality entails possibility]. So we can simply recast my claim in the following terms: “the possibility that the matter exists as water is presently actual“. First, there is nothing incoherent here; second, we can recast each of the allegedly incoherent instances of ‘potential’ in my article in terms of possibility; and third, all my critical points will remain entirely intact.

Overall, then, I conclude that Feser’s second rejoinder fails. Onto his third rejoinder.

Feser writes:

“The third problem with Schmid’s criticism is in his glib suggestion that if God can be actual without being actualized, then – for all I have shown – the water too might be actual without being actualized.”

Feser has here simply misrepresented me. I did not make a conditional claim to the effect that if God can be actual without being actualized, then the water too might be actual without being actualized. Let’s look at what I actually said:

I am honestly baffled how Feser could take from this passage a conditional claim to the effect that if God could exist unactualized, so could the water [for all Feser has shown]. That’s not at all what I said. I simply pointed out, first, that not all actualities consist in or involve or result from reductions or transitions from potency to act. I gave one example that would be kosher by the lights of defenders of the Aristotelian proof. I then proceeded to make a separate point that nothing in the passage I had cited from Feser — the passage, mind you, where Feser is proffering his justification for premise (7) — gives those who antecedently accept [or are neutral on] the claim that ‘the water’s existence at a non-first moment of its existence is not sustaining-causally actualized’ sufficient reason to abandon their position. Pace Feser, there is nothing like a conditional claim here moving from God’s being unactualized to the suggestion that the water, too, could be unactualized.

Feser continues: “For the view of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers (like me) is, of course, not that it is possible in principle for things in general to be actual without being actualized, but rather that it is possible only for something of a very specific type to be actual without being actualized – namely, for something that is purely actual and thus without any potentials standing in need of actualization.”

Nowhere did I say or even intimate that the view of A-T philosophers is that it is possible in principle for things in general to be actual without being actualized. My point was simply that premise (7) and that which Feser says on its behalf doesn’t give those who do think that things can be actual-but-not-sustaining-causally-actualized at non-first moments of their existence sufficient reason to abandon their position. And if we pay careful attention to what I actually write in the article, I say just as much: “The point for now is that Feser has, in the passage thus cited, given those in this latter camp no reason to abandon their view…”

Feser continues: “So, whereas Schmid seems to be appealing to some point of common ground between us as the basis for his objection, in reality he is doing no such thing.”

This is just false. I struggle to see how I could have been clearer that I wasn’t trying to appeal to some point of common ground. I was doing the opposite: I was explicitly saying that what Feser says on behalf of premise (7) does not give those who don’t share Feser’s view — that is, those who think that (say) the water can be actual at non-first moments of its existence without being sustained in existence by an outside efficient cause — sufficient reason to abandon their position. But this is precisely what Feser would need to do if he wants a successful proof. This was the whole point of the section at the beginning on the dialectical context. Feser can derive things from his own commitments that might entail God’s existence; fine by me. But if he wants to convince those who don’t antecedently accept his commitments, he needs to give them sufficient reason to abandon their position. And he has simply failed to do this with premise (7) and what he says on its behalf.

In the present dialectical context, the onus is not on detractors of premise (7) to pinpoint some common ground between them and A-T philosophers that should convince A-T philosophers to give up premise (7). No, it is Feser who is the one providing a positive argument for God’s existence. And hence he needs to convince those who don’t antecedently accept premise (7) to accept it. And this is where my point comes in: nothing Feser says on behalf of premise (7) gives such individuals sufficient reason to abandon their position. It is irrelevant if this point shouldn’t convince A-T philosophers to think their view is false. The onus is not on the detractor of an argument to convince the proponent of the argument to give up their position, or to convince them to think a premise is false or unsupported by appeal to common ground between them. All the detractor needs to do is point out that nothing in proponent’s argument, and nothing said on its behalf, gives the detractor any reason to abandon their position and accept the proponent’s. This does not require an appeal to common ground, and nor does it require showing that the premise in question is false or unsupported by the proponent’s lights.

Feser continues: “His objection presupposes that something other than what is purely actual might be actual without being actualized – a presupposition no Thomist would accept and for which he has given no justification. So, the objection simply begs the question.”

This just misunderstands the dialectical context.

First, my objection does not presuppose that something other than what is purely actual might be actual without being actualized. The objection, rather, is that nothing Feser says on behalf of premise (7) gives those who accept or are neutral on the claim that ‘the water does (or can) exist at non-first moments of its existence without being causally sustained by an extrinsic efficient cause’ sufficient reason to abandon their position. This is a point about what Feser says on behalf of premise (7), not a point that presupposes that something other than what is purely actual might be unactualized. Even someone who thinks that only what is purely actual can exist unactualized can (and should) accept my criticism, since they can (and should) recognize that nothing Feser says by way of justifying this claim should convince someone who doesn’t already accept it. The fact that someone who thinks ‘only what is purely actual can exist unactualized’ can endorse my criticism demonstrates that Feser’s claim [that my criticism presupposes that something non-purely actual can be unactualized] is simply false. (Indeed, I’ve chatted with many such individuals who think ‘only what is purely actual can exist unactualized’ that also accept my point that nothing Feser says by way of justifying this claim should convince those who don’t already accept it.)

Second, it is true that no Thomist would accept that something other than what is purely actual might be actual without being actualized. But this is flatly irrelevant. The point of my objection is not to convince the Thomist that they should reject or suspend judgment about premise (7). The point of my objection is that what Feser says on behalf of premise (7) simply gives those who don’t already accept premise (7) — that is, those who accept or are neutral on the claim that something other than what is purely actual does (or can) exist at non-first moments of its existence without being sustained by an extrinsic efficient cause — sufficient reason to change their mind [and come to adopt premise (7)].

Third, it is true that, in the section at hand, I don’t positively justify the thesis that something other than what is purely actual can exist unactualized. But — once more — this is flatly irrelevant. When one is presented with an argument and justifications said on behalf of its premises, the onus is not on the opponent to positively justify why one of the premises in the argument is false. Rather, the opponent need only point out that the argument and that which is said on behalf of its premise(s) doesn’t give them sufficient reason to accept the relevant premise(s). So there is no untoward question-begging here.

Imagine I come to you with the following argument:

  1. The number of quarks in existence is even.
  2. If the number of quarks in existence is even, then the number of quarks in existence is divisible by 2.
  3. So, the number of quarks in existence is divisible by 2.

Suppose you reject or are neutral [i.e., agnostic] on premise (1). You ask “why should I accept that?”. I then say “well, because an even number of quarks is more aesthetically pleasing than an odd number, and hypotheses that are more aesthetically pleasing than their rival hypotheses are more likely to be true.”

It is perfectly kosher for you to point out that what I have just said on behalf of premise (1) should not [or is at least insufficient to] convince those who reject or are neutral on premise (1). This is a perfectly legitimate dialectical move, and if you’re right, then you’ve shown that my argument [and that which I say on its behalf] fails to convince those who don’t already accept it [one or more of its premises, that is]. And that’s surely just to say that the argument fails simpliciter.

So, with this in mind, you say: “But neither premise (1) nor what you say on its behalf gives those who don’t antecedently accept the premise sufficient reason to abandon their position [and come to accept it].”

In Feserian fashion, suppose I say: “Your objection presupposes that the number of quarks in existence might be odd — a presupposition no Even-Number-Quarkist would accept and for which you have given no justification. So, the objection simply begs the question.”

This response is just confused. It completely misunderstands the dialectical context. And yet the dialectic I just traced is formally identical to the dialectic surrounding the Aristotelian proof and Feser’s (mistaken) allegation of question-begging. In short, Feser has misunderstood the dialectical context.

This is an important point, and it’s a bit abstract. I want you guys to understand it, so I’m going to give another concrete example that illustrates how Feser’s response misses the dialectical context. Pay attention, because I may have to refer back to these concrete examples later in the blog post. (Feser misunderstands the dialectical context on numerous occasions in his blog post, as I will explain below.)

The following example is one I articulated in my discussion of the De Ente argument beginning at 2:11:52 in this video. Here are the bullet points I articulated therein:

  • The existential inertialist rejection of (CP), that is, the principle that whatever belongs to a thing is either due to the principles of its essence. oran extrinsic cause.
    • First, a quick note: don’t misunderstand the dialectical context…
      • This response is not saying that the Thomist ought to adopt existential inertia, or even that existential inertia is possible under Thomism. This is not the job of an objection to an argument.
      • All an objection to an argument needs to do is point out that nothing in an argument, or what is said on behalf of its premises/assumptions, gives those who don’t already share such commitments sufficient reason to change their minds.
    • Whatever belongs to a thing is explained. But the explanation need not be in terms of the principles of something’s nature or an extrinsic principle/cause. There are whole hosts of ways of explaining why a belongs to b that don’t adduce such explanations. [Again, the point here is not to convince a Thomist, or to argue that the Thomist would/should grant that there are such other modes of explanation. Rather, it’s to point out that the CP [and what’s said on its behalf] doesn’t give those who do accept that there are such other modes of explanation—or who are neutral on the issue—with sufficient reason to change their mind. To say ‘but none of these are genuine explanations under Thomism’ or ‘but none of these would be convincing to a Thomist’ is to completely miss the dialectical context.

It’s like the following:

Atheist: Offers an argument from evil against theism.

Theist: “Listen, I think the explanation for the existence of this evil is that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing it. And, crucially, nothing in your argument gives me reason to think God doesn’t have such morally sufficient reasons.”

Atheist: “But that isn’t a genuine explanation of evil under atheism” or “But that is entirely unconvincing to the atheist” or “”Your objection presupposes that God exists [or that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing this evil]– a presupposition no atheist would accept and for which you have given no justification. So, the objection simply begs the question.”

The atheist, in the above dialogue, has completely missed the mark. The reason is because all the theist needs to do is point out that nothing in the atheist’s PoE [and what is said on its behalf] gives the theist sufficient reason to think the theist’s view is mistaken, i.e., to abandon his or her position.

I know, this stuff about dialectical context might be boring. But it’s exceedingly — exceedingly — important. And I hope you can forgive me for going into the boring details. I tried to circumvent responses that miss the dialectical context in my article’s section entitled [you guessed it] “Dialectical Context”. But try as I might, I failed to circumvent them.

In any case, all three of Feser’s rejoinders fail.

Let’s now consider what Feser says in response to the rejoinders I anticipate on Feser’s behalf in the Sophia article.

Feser writes: “Schmid makes some further points in response to replies he imagines I might give to his objection.  Since, for the reasons I’ve just given, that objection fails, his further points are moot.”

Since, for the reasons I’ve just given, what Feser says in response to my objection fails, the points he made therein are moot. But, alas, let’s still consider his rejoinders to my further points.

Feser writes: “He imagines, for example, that I might appeal to PSR as grounds for holding that the existence of the water at t requires some cause at t.  But in response he says that what happened prior to t plausibly explains the water’s existence at t.  Now, I am happy to concede that what happened prior to t is part of the explanation of the water’s existence at t.  But what is in question is whether what happened prior to t is by itself sufficient to explain the water’s existence at t.  Schmid says nothing to show that it would be sufficient.”

Again, this just misunderstands the dialectical context. Yes, what is in question is whether what happened prior to t is by itself sufficeint to explain the water’s existence at t. But — and this is crucial — Feser is the one offering a positive argument one of whose premises assumes that what happened prior to t is not sufficient to explain the water’s existence at t. By contrast, I did not take a stance on whether or not what happened prior to t is by itself sufficient to explain the water’s existence at t. Rather, I simply pointed out that nothing in premise (7) or what Feser says on its behalf gives those who do think ‘what happened prior to t is sufficient to explain the water’s existence at t’ sufficient reason to abandon their view. The onus is not on me to give positive reasons for thinking what happened prior to t is sufficient to explain the water’s existence at t. Rather, all I need to do is point out that (i) in order for Feser’s proof to succeed, he needs to positively show that what happened prior to t is not sufficient for the water to exist at t, and that (ii) he has simply not showed this. It is thus irrelevant to point out — as Feser did — that I say nothing to show that what happens before t would be sufficient for an explanation. This is the exact same dialectical-context-missing that we saw earlier.

In short, detractors of the Aristotelian proof don’t need to positively justify or establish that what happened prior to t is sufficient to explain the water’s existence at t. They only need to point out that the Aristotelian proof fails to justify why they aren’t sufficient.

Now, I have actually already made these very points about the dialectical context in connection with the PSR response, and I have already spelled out, in explicit and clear terms, why I don’t need to positively justify the [transtemporal] explanatory sufficiency of (say) the conjunction of (i) the water existing at the moment immediately prior to t and (ii) there being no sufficiently destructive factors operative from that moment to t. See p. 4:

It is strange that Feser simply doesn’t address what I say here, firstly, but also makes points that have already been sufficiently addressed here. In this passage, I explain why it is irrelevant to say — as Feser did — that I haven’t positively justified why appealing to what happened prior to t is explanatorily sufficient.

Feser then writes: “Meanwhile, I argue in Five Proofs that it is not sufficient, and (as we have just seen above) Schmid’s attempt to undermine that argument fails.”

In the Aristotelian proof chapter, all we’re offered by way of justifying the claim that what happened prior to t is insufficient to explain why the water exists at t, as far as I can tell, is the following passage:

“[I]t is that matter’s potential to exist as water that is being actualized right now. Why? It is no good to answer that such-and-such a process occurred at some time in the past so as to combine the hydrogen and oxygen in just the right way. That tells us how the water got here, but that is not what we are asking about. It is also no good to point out that nothing has yet come along to separate out the hydrogen and oxygen. That tells us how the water might someday go out of existence, but that isn’t what we’re asking about either. What we’re asking about, again, is what keeps the water in existence at any instant at which it does in fact exist. ” (2017, p. 26)

But this amounts to simply asserting that the appeal to past things is insufficient to explain the present existence of the water; it is hardly a justification for it. The philosopher who thinks that the existence of S at moment m is adequately explained by the conjunction of |(i) S existed immediately before m and (ii) nothing destroyed S from then through m| will simply say: “Au contraire; on my view, these do suffice to explain it. Nothing you say in the quoted passage gives me any reason to think my proffered explanation is inadequate. You can retort that it’s ‘no good’, but you need to show why it’s no good. My view is precisely one according to which the conjunction of (i) and (ii) tells us not merely how the water got here, and not merely how the water might go out of existence, but also why the water exists at m. All you have done is simply asserted that the conjunction of (i) and (ii) doesn’t tell us why/how the water exists at m. But that’s precisely my view. And merely asserting a denial of my view is hardly grounds for rejection of said view. And note, moreover, that the onus in the present dialectical context is not on me to positively demonstrate why (i) and (ii) suffice to explain S’s existence at m; rather, you are the one giving a positive argument here, and hence you are the one who needs to give me sufficient reason to think my view is false. I do not, in this context, need to positively justify why my view is true. I need only point out that you haven’t proven it false.” [For a more fleshed out discussion of transtemporal explanatory accounts of EIT, check out this document here.]

Finally — and note that I do not need to do this for my criticism to succeed — here is a plausible [to my mind at least] positive justification as to why something like (i) and (ii) do suffice to explain S’s existence at m. For S to fail to exist at m despite existing from [m*, m), m* < m, is for some change to occur. But a change occurs only if some factor causally induces said change. Hence, if no factor causally induces a change, then the change won’t occur. Thus, if no factor causally induces S to fail to exist at m despite existing from [m*, m), then S exists at m. Once we add that nothing came along to causally induce this — that is, once we addd that nothing came along to destroy S from m* to m — it simply follows that S exists at m. [Cf. Section 4.1 in the present blog post for more on this line of thought.]

Here, we seem to have a perfectly respectable, perfectly legitimate explanation of S’s existence at m. And this does, indeed, tell us how S exists at m. That was a straightforward deduction of the explanatory facts cited [namely, (i) S existed immediately before m, (ii) nothing causally induced S’s cessation at m [i.e., nothing destroyed S from the immediately prior moment(s) through m], and (iii) a change occurs only if some factor causally induces said change]. And so we do, indeed, have sufficient explanation for S’s existence at m, one that doesn’t adduce some extrinsic sustaining efficient cause. For me at least, the explanation certainly seems to remove mystery as to why/how S exists at m. And unlike what allegedly afflicts the explanatory facts adduced in the quoted passage above from Feser (2017, p. 26), the present explanation does, indeed, tell us how S exists at m. [I discuss and defend EIT-friendly explanations of persistence along similar lines in this document here on no-change accounts.]

For all the reasons in the last 10 (or so) paragraphs, Feser’s attempt to respond to what I say regarding the explanatory legitimacy of past things fails.

Feser writes: “Schmid also appeals in passing to the idea of “existential inertia” as a purported alternative explanation of the existence of the water at t.  But I have criticized atheist appeals to existential inertia at length (e.g. in this article and more briefly in Five Proofs at p. 233) and Schmid says nothing in reply to those criticisms.  (At least, he does not do so in the present article, which is the only one I’ve read.  But he ought to say something about them in the present article, since the article will beg the question otherwise.)”

First, yet again Feser is wrong in his accusation of questions-begged. This is the exact same mistake we’ve seen Feser make time and again throughout his blog post. In particular, it misunderstands the dialectical context. Again, the onus is not on me to positively justify EIT; all I need to do, rather, is merely to point out that neither premise (7) nor what is proffered on its behalf gives those who do accept EIT sufficient reason to abandon their position. There is simply no untoward question-begging here.

Second, I have criticized Feser’s criticisms of existential inertia at length (e.g., in my IJPR article — something I cite when I briefly adumbrate EIT in my Sophia article.). Here’s a document wherein I critically assess (some of) the main objections to EIT in the literature. Therein I address two of Feser’s principal criticisms, one from form-matter interdependence and the other from the Principle of Proportionate Causality, both of which are found in his ACPQ article on existential inertia.) That’s why I didn’t discuss Feser’s objections to EIT in my article — I have already addressed them at length elsewhere.[1]


[1] I don’t address, in the linked document, Feser’s claim, in his ACPQ article, that [at least some of] the five ways themselves represent arguments against EIT. Here are some reasons for this: (i) I am already addressing this claim elsewhere in my book manuscript [in particular, I have a whole chapter [and video] on the first way; I address what Feser says on behalf of the demand for sustaining causes in his essence-existence or De Ente-esque argument; and I address what Feser says on behalf of the demand for sustaining causes based on contingency. These three alone cover Feser’s claim that the first three ways constitute arguments against EIT. I discuss the fourth and fifth ways in my video here, for those interested.]; and (ii) I find it deeply implausible, given that the renditions in question of the five ways have premises that — by my lights — simply assume, rather than justify, the falsity of EIT.


Feser next writes: “As I pointed out in one of my recent exchanges with Oppy, one problem with the kind of existential inertia scenario he and Schmid favor is that it is viciously circular.  Existential inertia would be an attribute of any substance that has it.  But attributes are ontologically dependent on substances.  So, Schmid’s proposal amounts to saying that the water’s existence at t depends on its attribute of existential inertia, and that its attribute of existential inertia depends on the existence of the water at t – a metaphysical merry-go-round.”

I genuinely don’t know where Feser is getting this idea that “Schmid’s proposal” is one according to which existential inertia is an attribute of a substance. I have never said any such thing. Not in my IJPR paper. Not in my Sophia paper. Not in my videos. Not in my blog posts. Apparently I have a “proposal” — one that I “favor” — despite the fact of having never proposed or favored such a thing!


Edit:

Now, Feser does not, in the quoted passage, come out directly and say [in the sense of utter or write the words]: “Schmid explicitly says that existential inertia is an attribute of substances.” But it looks for all the world that Feser does say [in the sense of express or convey] that my view is one on which existential inertia is an attribute. And this is just a misrepresentation of my view.

Suppose I said the following [to be sure, I’m only using this as an example; I’m not making these claims lol): “With the kind of classical theism Feser favors, it isn’t really theism. God would be an impersonal being. But impersonal beings aren’t candidates for a theistic foundation. So, Feser’s proposal amounts to saying that God is impersonal and that theism is false.”

I think Feser would rightly say: “What??? God would not be an impersonal being on the classical theism I favor. The opposite would be true. And my proposal is precisely the opposite of God’s being impersonal. My proposal is precisely one on which God is personal!”.

I didn’t come out and explicitly say “Feser directly claims that God is impersonal”. But I said that God would be impersonal on the view he favors. And surely this is just to say that Feser favors a view according to which God is impersonal. And Feser would rightly retort that “that is not a view I favor. I favor an opposite view. You have misrepresented me.”

But maybe Feser would say that he is not aiming to characterize my view as one on which EI is an attribute but is instead aiming to say that EI’s being an attribute of a substance follows from my view on EI, even if I don’t myself hold that EI is an attribute. And if that is what he is doing, then he has not technically misrepresented my view.

I think that might be what Feser’s doing if I squint really hard and turn my head 90 degrees. So perhaps there is some way — some interpretation of what Feser says — that avoids a charge of misrepresentation here. Yes, perhaps, but the interpretation is not entirely smooth sailing. For the interpretation itself involves lots of implausibilities. For starters, it becomes exceedingly strange for Feser to say that ‘Schmid’s proposal’ has EI’s being an attribute as an entailment, without even gesturing towards any inkling of any reason why this is or could be the case. In fact, if Feser was not characterizing my view on EI but was instead merely aiming to draw out an entailment thereof, then I lose my grasp of what Feser is referring to by ‘Schmid’s proposal’ and ‘the kind of existential inertia scenario Schmid favors’. For I do not propose an ‘existential inertia scenario’ or EIT in my Sophia paper, and Feser, in writing his post, had not read my IJPR paper. I gesture towards EIT in my Sophia paper when talking about transtemporal explanatory relations, but that can’t be what Feser is referring to, since that account of inertial persistence explicitly denies that it is some attribute of a substance it possesses at t that explains its existence at t. Rather, the account precisely argues that it is past things that explain the substance’s existence at t. I also gesture towards EIT when outlining my account of per se chains, but once again any inertial thesis drawn therefrom explicitly denies that it is some attribute a substance possesses at t that explains the substance’s existence at t.

To explicate an explanation of the substance’s existence at t under an EIT extracted from what I say about per se chains, we need to read what I write here:

Here, it is explicit that what explains S’s existence at t is that (i) S existed at some t* before t; (ii) any deviation from a state O [e.g., S’s state of existence] would be inexplicable in the absence of some intrinsic or extrinsic tendency or net causal factor away from O; (iii) there are no inexplicable deviations; and (iv) from t* to t, there is an absence of some intrinsic or extrinsic tendency or net causal factor toward S’s non-existence. This much (or, rather, something much like it) is clear from the text. And it is clear that the explanation for S’s existence at t is not an attribute S possesses at t.

So, if one wants to interpret the passage quoted before “Edit” not as Feser characterizing my view as one on which EI is an attribute but instead as him merely stating that an entailment of my view is that EI is an attribute, I guess this is possible. But as I’ve just argued, this interpretation itself seems fraught with difficulties. And so we shouldn’t conflate the possible with the probable or plausible.

Upon deep reflection, I don’t even know which interpretation I should use, since normally we use the principle of charity to decide. But as I explained above, whichever interpretation we use, we’re going to be ascribing mistakes to Feser, and I don’t know which ones are worse. [On the ‘characterization’ interpretation, the single mistake is misrepresentation. On the ‘entailment’ interpretation, it becomes wholly obscure what ‘my proposal’ about existential inertia– a view that I ‘favor’ — refers to/amounts to, and moreover the only plausible candidates seem to render Feser’s claim that they explain S’s existence at t by an attribute of S at t obviously mistaken. I don’t know which is worse: misrepresentation, or the conjunction of obscurity and an obvious mistake?

Fin.


Indeed, let me tell you what I think is false: a view on which existential inertia is an attribute.

As I articulate existential inertia, it is a thesis — the Existential Inertia Thesis (EIT). It is not an attribute; it is a thesis purporting to describe reality [and, in particular, substance’s persistence]. I get technical but very precise and rigorous in my articulation of EIT in this document, but here is much less technical gloss:

Existential Inertia Thesis (EIT): For each member O of some (proper or improper) sub-set of temporal concrete objects and for each time t such that O exists at some time t* earlier than t, (i) at t, O does not ontologically depend on the existence or activity of some concrete object O*, where O* is not a (proper or improper) part of O, and (ii) if O is not positively destroyed within the temporal interval [t*, t], then O exists at t.

Now, I unpack definitions and make some notes in Section 4.1 below. So I won’t belabor those here. My point is simply that nothing in EIT, as articulated above, commits to existential inertia being an attribute. Nothing.

It’s hard to see what such an attribute would amount to, moreover. Would it be something like the property of being such as to persist in the absence of both external sustenance/conservation and sufficiently positively destructive factors? As someone who accepts sparse views of properties, I say there is no such property as this.

“But if existential inertia isn’t an attribute, then what is?”, you might ask. Well, it’s a thesis, just like the Doctrine of Divine Conservation. It purports to describe reality.

“But if existential inertia isn’t an attribute, then you don’t have an explanation for persistence. Wasn’t the whole point of existential inertia to posit some attribute that explains persistence?”, you might ask. But this is mistaken. It is simply false that if EIT isn’t an attribute, then there’s no inertialist-friendly explanation for persistence. Once again, I direct people to the following documents wherein discuss different inertialist-friendly explanations of persistence: (a) tendency-disposition accounts here; (b) transtemporal accounts here; (c) law-based accounts here; (d) necessity accounts here; (e) no-change accounts here. See also Section 4.1 below. And no, that was not the whole point of EIT.

Finally, suppose — contrary to what I believe — that existential inertia were an attribute. This would only be problematic if we accepted the controversial thesis that attributes ground character — that is, it is in virtue of possessing/exemplifying/instantiating (say) the property redness that something is red. But suppose we reject this thesis and adopt its opposite: it is rather in virtue of being red that something possesses/etc. the property redness. Under this anti-character-grounding view, it is simply false — pace Feser — that existential inertia’s being an attribute entails that the water exists at t [or persists from t* to t, t* < t] because it has the attribute of existential inertia. Rather, the substance has the attribute of existential inertia because it exists at t [or persists from t* to t, t* < t] in an inertial fashion. So even if existential inertia were an attribute [it’s not], Feser’s argument still fails.

Feser writes: “Schmid also quotes a passage in Five Proofs where I speak of the existence of the coffee in a certain cup as being “actualized” by the existence of the water that makes it up, where the existence of the water in turn depends on the existence of the particles that make it up, etc.  Here, he suggests, I am dubiously characterizing what are in fact the constituents of a whole as if they were the efficient causes of the whole.

I can see why Schmid would say this, given an uncharitable reading of the passage in question, which perhaps I ought to have phrased more carefully.  But that he should have read it more charitably is, I think, clear from the fact that I there said that the potential existence of the coffee is actualized “in part” by the existence of the water.  Naturally, the constituents of a thing qua constituents are not efficient causes, but material causes.  But what I meant in that passage is that the existence of the coffee is explained by the presence of its constituents together with something that actualizes the potential of those constituents to be coffee, specifically, as opposed to some other kind of thing.”

Let’s take the first paragraph of what Feser says here first.

I can see why Feser would write this paragraph, given an uncharitable reading of what I say in my Sophia article, which perhaps I ought to have phrased more carefully. But that Feser should have read my article more charitably is, I think, clear from the fact that I did not claim or suggest that Feser himself does treat what are in fact the constituents of coffee as if they were the efficient causes thereof. Let’s have a careful look at what I said:

Let’s be clear, first, that what I am doing in this part of the paper is anticipating some potential replies on behalf of Feser. There is thus an understanding that Feser doesn’t actually explicitly proffer these replies as I outline them. Further support for this is where I say that “Feser might argue” in the passage above. I don’t claim that Feser in fact argues this. True, I did say “Indeed, Feser writes” and quoted a passage from Feser. But that is a very, very far cry from my saying that Feser in fact argues for the rejoinder at hand. My use of ‘indeed’ was not meant to be saying (say) “indeed, Feser argues precisely this”. That is one interpretation of ‘indeed’, but it certainly isn’t the only. Another interpretation of ‘indeed’ is ‘indeed, there might be some basis or analogue for this potential objection in something Feser writes elsewhere’. This latter interpretation does not claim that Feser in fact argues for the claim in question about parts efficiently causally sustaining their wholes.

To bolster my point, consider that I go on to say that ‘this response’ is mistaken, rather than ‘Feser’s response’ is mistaken. I am here careful to disambiguate the potential rejoinder on behalf of Feser (on the one hand) from an actual Feserian rejoinder (on the other). Moreover, I go on to say that “one would be mistaken” in accepting that the parts efficiently cause the whole. Once more, I am careful not to say ‘Feser would be mistaken’.

I don’t have anything to add by way of commenting on his second paragraph. I do want to point out, though, that — pace Feser, and as I have just argued — I have not read Feser uncharitably here.


Congrats! You made it this far into the blog post. Kudos. Here’s a glorious 7-second video to reward you.


Essentially ordered causal series

Feser takes issue with my proposed undercutting defeater for the Aristotelian proof based on per se chains. Let’s see what he has to say.

Feser writes:

But [Schmid’s account of per se chains] is simply wrong. What Schmid is describing is at most a contingent feature of certain specific examples of essentially ordered causal series.  It is not a necessary condition of all essentially ordered series as such.  For B to be a merely secondary cause of C, all that is required is that B lack any intrinsic power to produce C.  There needn’t be (though of course in some cases there could be) a countervailing factor (whether some tendency within B or some causal power external to B) positively acting to prevent B from producing C.  There need merely be the absence in B of any positive tendency to produce C.  A primary cause A need merely impart to B the needed causal power.  A needn’t, either alternatively or in addition, counteract something that prevents B from exercising the needed power.”

So far, Feser has simply asserted that my alternative account of per se chains is false. There is no justification in this paragraph. Hopefully he gives such justification later on — we shall see. To show you why the paragraph above contains nothing but bald assertions, let’s go through each claim:

“What Schmid is describing is at most a contingent feature of certain specific examples of essentially ordered causal series.”

Response: The account in question is precisely one according to which this is not a mere contingent feature of certain specific examples of essentially ordered causal series. Thus, you have simply asserted that the view is false.

“It is not a necessary condition of all essentially ordered series as such.”

Response: The account in question is precisely one according to which this is a necessary condition. Thus, you have simply asserted that the view is false.

“For B to be a merely secondary cause of C, all that is required is that B lack any intrinsic power to produce C.”

Response: The account in question is precisely one according to which this is not all that’s required. According to the view, some counteracting causal factor is also required. Thus, you have simply asserted that the view is false.

“There needn’t be (though of course in some cases there could be) a countervailing factor (whether some tendency within B or some causal power external to B) positively acting to prevent B from producing C.”

Response: The account in question is precisely one according to which there need be such a factor. Thus, you have simply asserted that the view is false.

“There need merely be the absence in B of any positive tendency to produce C.”

Response: The account in question is precisely one according to which this is not all that’s needed; there need also be a counteracting factor. Thus, you have simply asserted that the view is false.

“A primary cause A need merely impart to B the needed causal power.”

Response: The account in question is precisely one according to which this is not all that’s needed; the primary cause need also provide a vector-like causality canceling the counteracting factor. Thus, you have simply asserted that the view is false.

“A needn’t, either alternatively or in addition, counteract something that prevents B from exercising the needed power.”

Response: The account in question is precisely one according to which there need be such counteraction. Thus, you have simply asserted that the view is false.

Feser’s paragraph here is just a series of sentences that re-word a mere denial of my account. But maybe he gives justification later on. Let’s proceed and find out.

Feser writes: “Why would Schmid want to suggest otherwise?  (And suggest is all he does.  He does nothing to show that the counteracting of some opposite tendency is a necessary feature of any essentially ordered causal series.  The most he does is to propose that this is a plausible way of interpreting certain specific examples.)”

Once again, Feser evinces here a misunderstanding of the dialectical context. The onus is not on me to positively justify why this is a necessary feature of any essentially ordered series. All I need to do is point out that nothing Feser says on behalf of the Aristotelian proof gives someone who does think this is a necessary feature of any essentially ordered series sufficient reason to change their mind, and that this is precisely what he would need to do for his proof to succeed. Hence, it is no mark at all — not even a smidgen — against my paper that I do not positively show my account to be true. [I was explicit, in the paper, that the objection constitutes an undercutting defeater, not a rebutting defeater.]

Also, it’s simply false that ‘the most I do’ is ‘propose’ that ‘this is a plausible way of interpreting certain specific examples’. Not only do I explain the intuitive plausibility behind the account, but I also go on to consider how the account provides a powerful explanation of whole host of facts pertaining to per se series, other intuitions about explicability, and inertial location. Even if Feser doesn’t think these points succeed, it’s just obviously wrong to claim, as Feser did, that ‘the most’ I do is ‘propose’ that my account is a ‘plausible way of interpreting certain specific examples’. This is like saying the most Feser does in his Five Proofs is defend the Aristotelian proof.

Finally — and note that is not required for my criticism to succeed — I actually intimate a positive argument for my view in the following passage:

Here, I gesture towards an explicability argument that applies universally and in the abstract in favor of my account. The argument would go something like:

  1. If S is placed in condition or outcome O, then in the absence of both intrinsic causal factors [a tendency toward ~O] and extrinsic causal factors [some cause that brings S out of O] it would be inexplicable if S went out of O.
  2. But there cannot be such inexplicable changes of state.
  3. Hence, if S is placed in O, then in the absence of both intrinsic and extrinsic causal factors, S will remain in O.
  4. If (3) is true, then the only case in which something disjoint from S is needed for S to remain in O is when there is either an intrinsic or extrinsic causal factor [toward ~O].
  5. If the only case in which something disjoint from S is needed for S to remain in O is when there is either an intrinsic or extrinsic causal factor [toward ~O], then my account of per se chains is correct.
  6. So, my account of per se chains is correct.

I’m open to this argument being just another (perhaps more complicated) way of putting the same point I make in Section 4.1 below and in my paragraph, earlier in this section [Section 3], beginning with “But this amounts to simply asserting that the appeal to past things is insufficient…”.

In any case, I won’t defend this argument here. I will refer people to the paper for more details. My point in including this is that it shows that Feser’s claim that the ‘most’ I do is say my account is ‘plausible’ upon considering certain examples is obviously wrong. For it shows, firstly, that my account is not gleaned from a mere examination of particular instances of per se chains and their contingent features; rather, it is based on perfectly general considerations pertaining to explicability. It also shows, secondly, that it is clearly false that the ‘most’ I do is suggest my account is plausible upon considering specific examples. I do far more than that, as any careful reader of my paper should be able to tell.

Feser then characterizes my position:

“Schmid’s own alternative account of what is going on with the water is this: The water which exists at time t – 1 will, in the absence of some factor positively trying to destroy it, simply carry on existing at t.  A primary cause standing at the head of an essentially ordered series would be needed only if there were some destructive factor that needed to be counteracted.  Since there isn’t such a destructive factor, there is no need to appeal to such a series.”

Now let’s take his response to that characterization bit by bit.

Feser: “The problem with this, though, is that it once again simply assumes Schmid’s “existential inertia” model of the continued existence of the water – something which, again, I have argued against in the book and elsewhere, and which Schmid does nothing to defend in the present article.”

This is wrong. First, it doesn’t ‘simply assume’ existential inertia; as I showed above, I intimate an explicability-based argument [defended earlier in Section 3 and in Section 4.1 below based on the Aristotelian proof’s own commitments.] Second, I have already addressed Feser’s criticisms of existential inertia, so his point there is moot. See the document linked earlier in this blog post. Third, Feser once again misunderstands the dialectical context when he says that I don’t do anything in the article to defend existential inertia. [For one thing, I do — see the explicability argument.] The onus is not on me to positively justify EIT; all I need to show is that nothing Feser says on behalf of premise (7) gives those who do accept EIT any reason to abandon their position. This is the distinction between a rebutting defeater and undercutting defeater that I carefully articulated in my section on the “Dialectical Context” — a section I included to circumvent precisely the misunderstandings of the dialectical context that Feser repeatedly evinces.

Feser: “In particular, Schmid will have to assume that model in order to make sense of the suggestion that the water will continue to exist at t in the absence of any destructive factor working positively to knock it out of existence.  So, yet again he simply begs the question.”

Once again, Feser is here misunderstanding the dialectical context. I do not have to assume EIT to make my point. In fact, someone who disagrees with EIT can make my point, which shows that my point doesn’t assume EIT. My point is that nothing in premise (7) or that which is said on its behalf gives those who do accept EIT reason to abandon their position. This point does not assume EIT. Indeed, it can be made by those who deny EIT, since they, too, can recognize the inadequacy of the justification proffered on behalf of premise (7) to convince those who accept or are neutral on EIT to abandon their view.

There is thus no question-begging here. [Indeed, I could with no less justice say that Feser is one begging the question by insisting on a premise that denies EIT without giving those who don’t antecedently accept the premise or who don’t antecedently deny EIT sufficient reason to abandon their position.]

Feser: “It is important to emphasize that there is indeed a burden on Schmid to defend his existential inertia model, in order for his objections in the current article to have any force.”

This is false, and once again it evinces a misunderstanding of the dialectical context. In order for my objections to have force, I do not need to positively justify EIT. I need only point out that nothing in premise (7) or that which is said on its behalf gives those who do accept EIT reason to abandon their position. This doesn’t require positively justifying EIT. Instead, it only requires showing that Feser — in what he says on behalf of premise (7) — has not adequately positively justified the negation of EIT.

Feser: “He seems to think that it is enough for him that I have not proved that there is a destructive factor positively working to knock the water out of existence.”

This is not at all what I said in the article or what I think. What I did say is that (i) nothing Feser says on behalf of premise (7) rules out my account of per se chains, and (ii) this is a problem because if my account of per se chains is correct, then Feser’s proof faces an undercutting defeater. This was the point of the ‘undercutting defeater’ sub-section. Allow me to paste it here:

As these images illustrate, it is clearly false to say — as Feser did — that I “think that it is enough… that [Feser has] not proved that there is a destructive factor positively working to knock the water out of existence.” It is quite clear from the images that I most certainly think that pointing this out is not, by itself, enough. What’s needed is to point out that (i) nothing Feser says on behalf of premise (7) gives those who accept or are neutral on my account of per se chains to abandon their position, and that (ii) this constitutes an undercutting defeater for the Aristotelian proof, so long as it is also true that Feser has not given any justification as to why the two necessary conditions [(i) and (ii)] of my account are satisfied. Nowhere do I say or even suggest that ‘it is enough to point out that Feser hasn’t proved that there is a destructive factor operative’. That is clearly not enough. But it’s equally clear that this is not at all what I do, as any careful inspection of the images above reveal. To make things as explicit as possible, here’s the argument:

  1. If my account is true, then a sustaining cause C is required for S’s actual existence only if (i) there is some F (either intrinsic or extrinsic to S) acting on S to bring S toward non-existence; (ii) F is a net factor or force in the absence of C’s existential sustenance; and (iii) S actually exists such that actual existence is distinct from the condition or outcome of S’s non-existence.
  2. Suppose my account is true.
  3. So, a sustaining cause C is required for S’s actual existence only if (i) there is some F (either intrinsic or extrinsic to S) acting on S to bring S toward non-existence; (ii) F is a net factor or force in the absence of C’s existential sustenance; and (iii) S actually exists such that actual existence is distinct from the condition or outcome of S’s non-existence. (1, 2)
  4. On the basis of the Aristotelian proof and what’s said on its behalf, conditions (i) and (ii) have not been justified.[1]
  5. So, on the basis of the Aristotelian proof and what’s said on its behalf, the requirement of a sustaining cause for S’s actual existence has not been justified. (3, 4, epistemic modus tollens — cf. footnote 12 of my article]
  6. If (5) is true, then the Aristotelian proof faces an undercutting defeater.
  7. So, the Aristotelian proof faces an undercutting defeater. (5, 6)
  8. So, if my account is true, the Aristotelian proof faces an undercutting defeater. [2-7, conditional proof]

This is quite clearly not what Feser describes me as doing — that is, this is quite clearly not me saying that ‘it’s enough to point out that Feser hasn’t proved that there is a destructive factor operative’.

[1] Strictly speaking, I only need a disjunction — either (i) or (ii) hasn’t been justified. But the conjunctive claim is true, so I’ll use that.

Anyway, let’s move on.

Feser: “And indeed I have not proved that, but I have not tried to, because it is irrelevant.”

No, it’s not irrelevant, as I have shown above. In fact, Feser’s granting this fact is just granting that premise (4) is true of the above argument– or, at least that conjunct (i) is not justified in Feser (2017, ch. 1). Far from being irrelevant, then, this is an admission of the truth of one of the premises in my undercutting defeater for the Aristotelian proof.

Feser: “What I have done is argue against the existential inertia model, and if my arguments are correct, then the sheer existence of the water at t will need a cause even in the absence of anything positively working to destroy it.”

It wasn’t argued against — at least not convincingly, as I have shown throughout this blog post — in the Aristotelian proof and what is said on its behalf. Yes, Feser has argued against it in his ACPQ article. I have already addressed those arguments. Yes, Feser touches on existential inertia later in his book beginning on p. 233. But I have already responded, either directly or indirectly, to the criticisms he raises therein.

Consider, for instance, Feser’s point here: “If something has this kind of “existential inertia”, it is claimed, then it need not be conserved in being by God. One problem with this thesis is that its proponents never explain exactly what it is about a material object or any other contingent thing that could give it this remarkable feature.” (p. 233)

The first problem with this is that it mistakenly treats [or at least seems to treat] existential inertia as a feature. But I’ve already shown why this is mistaken in this blog post. The second problem is that I have explained what it is about reality or about objects in virtue of which EIT’s truth obtains [if, of course, EIT is true]. That’s the point of the metaphysical accounts. See the documents I’ve already linked.

Or consider Feser’s point here: “It is merely suggested, without argument, that things might have “existential inertia”, as if this were no less plausible than the claim that they are conserved in being by God.” (p. 233)

This is the same misunderstanding of the dialectic context that has afflicted Feser’s blog post. It is irrelevant that a suggestion of EIT is not accompanied by an argument. As we’ve seen, the onus is not on the detractors of an argument to positively justify why one of their premises is false [i.e. to positively justify why things, contra a premise in the argument, enjoy existential inertia]. All detractors need to do is point out that nothing in the proof or what is said on its behalf gives them any reason to think EIT is false.

Feser then goes on to say on p. 233 that his various proofs themselves constitute reasons contra EIT. But as I have argued in this blog post, this is false when it comes to the Aristotelian proof, and that’s the proof under consideration for present purposes. (Moreover, I argue in my book manuscript that none of the other proofs succeed in showing EIT is false.)

I don’t think we should be sanguine, then, about Feser’s rejoinder [i.e., the quote after the most recent “Feser:”].

Onward we march to consider Feser’s next points.

Feser: “Schmid also claims that I have failed to show that, in the case of the sheer existence of a thing at some time t, the essentially ordered causal series that accounts for it is to be understood according to my analysis of essentially ordered series rather than Schmid’s analysis…”

I include this quote, above, so viewers have context of what Feser is about to criticize.

Feser: “But in fact my critique of existential inertia does double duty here.  If the water lacks existential inertia, then it simply will not exist even for a moment, including at t, without a sustaining cause at t.  No factor needs positively to act to try to knock it out of existence; the mere lack of existential inertia will suffice for its failing to exist at t if there is nothing causing it to exist then.  So, if something does cause the water to exist at t, then this won’t be a matter of its having to counteract some factor that is trying to knock the water out of existence (along the lines of Schmid’s model of essentially ordered series).  Rather, it will be a matter of the cause actualizing something (the water) that simply would not otherwise exist at t whether or not there is a factor that needs to be counteracted.  In other words, this will be a scenario that fits my model of essentially ordered series, not Schmid’s.

Now, suppose the water does have a sustaining cause C, and that this cause too lacks existential inertia.  Then C is ontologically in the same situation as the water.  It too will simply not exist at t – and thus will not be able to cause the water to exist at t – unless it too has a sustaining cause of its own.  And once again, there need be no destructive factor that this further sustaining cause is counteracting (as in Schmid’s model).  Now suppose that what causes C to exist at t is B, and that B too lacks existential inertia.  Then the same problem will arise yet again.  And once again we will have a case where (contrary to Schmid’s model of essentially ordered series) the need for a sustaining cause has nothing to do with there being some countervailing force that the sustaining cause is counteracting.

Indeed, in the case of the sustaining causes of things which lack existential inertia, we have perhaps the clearest possible example of an essentially ordered series fitting my description of how such series operate rather than Schmid’s description.  Hence to rebut his existential inertia model suffices to rebut what he says about essentially ordered causal series.”

This response, as Feser recognizes, is wholly dependent on the assumption that Feser’s critique of existential inertia succeeds. But it doesn’t, as I have explained throughout this post. [Click those links to documents if you want to investigate my responses.]

Feser: “it doesn’t seem to me that there is much in Schmid’s first two objections that really adds much to the exchanges online and in print that I have already had with Oppy.”

I could go on and on about how it adds to what Oppy says. For starters, I offer the explicability argument above; I offer [in a non-premise-by-premise form] the 8-step argument above; I point out the explanatory power and intuitive plausibility behind my account of per se chains and also connect it to inertial spatial location; I address a number of potential rejoinders on Feser’s behalf to my first criticism; and so on. Oppy does none of this. In a nutshell, Oppy just explains that he accepts EIT and explains why this means he rejects premise (7) [and, by his lights, premise (4) too]. I go far, far beyond this. In fact, I don’t even think that Oppy raises what-Feser-labels-as my first criticism at all. And I have already addressed what Feser has written in print on these matters [e.g., existential inertia]. I have also already shown, in the present blog post, why Feser’s principal objection to Oppy in his discussion on CC, namely, the circularity objection to EIT, fails.

Anyway, I am left to conclude that what Feser says in response to what-Feser-labels-as my second criticism fails. In the next sub-section, I will address what Feser says in response to my paper’s section entitled “A Tension”.

A Tension?

Feser next discusses my brief section on “A Tension”. Before considering Feser’s criticism(s), I’ll explain some ways I would re-write that section.

I would first point out that Feser’s causal principle may be ambiguous between two different readings:

First reading: if there are a range of potentials p1, p2, … pn, only one of which can be actual[ized] (at a given time), and one of them, pi, is actual[ized] (at a given time), then there is some cause which makes pi actual (at a given time). [NB: if you don’t like talk of potentials here, substitute ‘possibilities’. Nothing hangs on this.]

Second reading: whenever there is some transition from potential being to actual being — i.e., whenever something that exists in potency is brought from its (ontologically or causally or temporally) prior state of existing in potency to its state of existing in actuality — there is an already actual cause of this transition.

I would then argue that the second reading is, indeed, quite obviously incompatible with classical theism. There is no priorly existing state of potency, in creation, that God causes to transition from its state of potency to its state of actuality. This does, indeed, problematically-by-CT’s-lights presuppose some kind of being [albeit potential being] existing apart from God [causally/ontologically] prior to creation. So the second reading will spell disaster for the Aristotelian proof.

But the first reading doesn’t seem any better for the Aristotelian proof. For starters, it doesn’t seem that Feser (2017, ch. 1) anywhere justifies a causal principle to the effect of the first reading. Instead, Feser defends a causal principle on which every change — that is, every case where there is indeed some prior state of potential that is caused to go from that state to a state of actuality — is caused by something already actual. (Feser does take an existential turn in his proof and applies the principle to the momentary existence of an object. But that is compatible with the second reading, since the ‘prior’ in the second reading is consistent with a causally or ontologically prior state rather than a temporal one.)

For another thing — and as I’ve explained at the beginning of this section [Section 3] —  the first reading would straightforwardly debar the inference to a purely actual being. For suppose that the unactualized actualizer is simply a necessary but non-purely-actual being, A. In that cause, it is simply false that there are a range of potentials when it comes to the very being, existence, or actuality of A, since A is necessarily actually existent. It thus has no potential pertaining to its very substantial being or existence (e.g., potentials to cease to exist, to begin to exist, or to be absent from reality altogether). Thus, if the causal principle at play in the Aristotelian proof were the one previously articulated, then the Aristotelian proof would be incapable of justifying the need for a sustaining, actualizing cause of A. (Why? Because the antecedent of the causal principle is simply false when it comes to A’s very being or existence — there isn’t a range of potentials concerning A’s very substantial existence. And so one cannot infer, solely by means of said causal principle, that A has a cause of its existence.) And if the Aristotelian proof were incapable of justifying the need for a sustaining, actualizing cause of A, then it simply couldn’t show that the unactualized actualizer is purely actual, since — for all the argument shows — A could be the unactualized actualizer, and A is not purely actual.

I would thereby cast the ‘tension’ not so much as a tension simpliciter but rather a dilemma one of whose disjuncts stands in tension with CT. Perhaps Feser would say that the first and second readings would represent a false dichotomy. But, first — and this might be due to my lack of imagination — it’s difficult for me to see any other plausible rendition or reading of what Feser’s causal principle amounts to.

[Part of what makes things a little difficult — for me, at least — is that Feser first defends the causal principle as applied to change, i.e., some transition from a prior state of potential being to a posterior state of actual being, and then later in his chapter takes an existential turn and applies the principle [or a similar principle, or maybe a different principle?] to the very existence of a substance at a given moment. Maybe he means for his principle to be a conjunctive one, like: in the case of change, the first reading is the causal principle; but in the case of existence-at-a-single moment, the second reading [or something very much like it] is the causal principle. In any case, you can see why, since publishing my Sophia article, I want to re-write the section “A Tension”. And while I do take any blame associated with not re-writing it in the clear fashion I did in this blog post, I would argue that the unclarity is due to Feser’s exposition. In particular, it is due to it being unclear what, exactly, the causal principle amounts to, and whether it changes when Feser takes the existential turn in his Aristotelian proof. Alright, end of digression.]

And, second, even if the dichotomy is not properly exhaustive, it’s going to be difficult to find another alternative that doesn’t succumb to the problems afflicting each thus-far-demarcated disjunct. If you make the principle too change-centered [a la the second reading], you’ll make the Aristotelian proof incompatible with CT on account of entailing a [causally or ontologically or temporally] prior state of potential being [prior to creation, that is]. If you make the principle too cross-world-difference-centered, you’ll fall into the same problems as earlier [to wit, (i) the fact that Feser doesn’t justify such cross-world-difference-centered principles in (2017, ch. 1), and (ii) such principles will undermine the proof’s inference to A’s being purely actual as opposed to necessarily-actually-existent-while-having-potency-for-accidental-change-or-accidental-cross-world-variance.] This is a very fine-line to walk along, and I’m skeptical it can be done.

With this out of the way, I will now consider what Feser says by way of criticism of the section.

Feser: “But Schmid’s mistake here is his implicit assumption that causation as such requires some preexisting substrate that is altered in the act of causation.  And that is, of course, precisely what the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo denies.  Hence if Schmid’s alleged problem really were a problem, it would indeed be a problem for classical theism as such (since classical theism is committed to creatio ex nihilo) and not just for Aristotelian versions of it.”

First, note that the criticism at hand is not that this is a problem for ‘Aristotelian versions of CT’. The problem, instead, is one for the conjunction of the Aristotelian proof and CT. For the Aristotelian proof requires some potential for existence that is brought to actuality. And this potential for existence is some kind of being, some kind of reality, on Feser’s view. But what to make of this potential being? To what [or whom] does this potential being — some ‘potential for a substance’s existence’ — belong? In what does it inhere? What’s its locus, so to speak?

The ‘potential for S’s existence’ surely cannot be some feature of S. For by Feser’s own lights, features are ontologically posterior to and dependent on the prior actuality of the substances in which they inhere. But in that case, S’s actuality is prior to the potential for S’s existence, in which case it is false — pace the Aristotelian proof, or at least pace what would need to be affirmed by the Aristotelian proof for its causal principle to apply — that the relevant potential is brought from potential being to actual being. But nor can it be a feature of something other than S, for the only other options, with respect to God’s creation of substances, are that it’s a feature of God or else floats free of God in a realm of pure potentiality. And neither of these are acceptable by CTists’ lights.

The trouble is precisely in what a ‘potential for S’s existence’ amounts to. Potentials, by Feser’s lights, enjoy some kind of being. There is thus some potential being corresponding to the relevant potential. This potential being, moreover, is reduced from potential being to actual being. This follows from Feser’s causal principle (CP), which, I take it, states something like ‘whatever reduces from potency to act is causally actualized by another in a state of actuality’: For the CP to apply in the relevant case, S’s very existence, or perhaps S itself, must be in a state of potential being; and then it must be causally reduced from this state of potential being to a state of actual being. And it is this state of potential being that poses a challenge for CT. Under CT, creation is the very production of the entire substance, both potencies and actualities. It is not the causing of some state of potential being to be made into a state of actual being. [One of the only plausible ways around this problem, it seems to me, is to interpret Feser’s causal principle more-so along the lines of the first reading from above. But we have already seen how this way of avoiding the problem simply furnishes us with new problems for the Aristotelian proof.]

In short, then, I am urging that under CT, there is no such thing as a state of potential being corresponding to the potential for a substance’s very existence. In order for this potential to inhere in something actual [which, I take it, is a commitment of Aristotelian metaphysics — potencies don’t float free (as it were)], it must inhere either in the substance in question or in God.[1] But the actual inherent base can’t be the substance itself, for reasons articulated above. [For another reason, it seems simply incoherent that the potential being in question inheres in the substance itself. For that to be true, the substance must be actually existent. But in that case, ‘S’s existence’ [or S itself] is not in a state of potency [precisely because S is actually existent, and hence it is false that S’s existence [or S] is in potentiality], and hence it is false that there is such a thing as this ‘potential for S’s existence’ that is both potential being and that inheres in S, which contradicts our assumption for reductio that it is both potential being and inheres in S.] But nor can the actual inherent base be the classical theistic God, for obvious reasons. And therein lies the problem: if, as the Aristotelian proof says, there is such a thing as ‘S’s potential for existence’, then this potential being must either inhere in God or S; but it can inhere in neither.

Feser: “But in fact it is not a problem.  Certainly no Thomist would agree that it is, given the Thomist account of creation as the conjoining of existence to essence, where the latter, considered by itself, is merely potential until the former actualizes it.  Now, this is not a matter of altering some preexisting substrate, since prior to creation there is no substrate.  When we draw hydrogen and oxygen out of water, there is something already there – the water – in which the things we are drawing out preexist in a virtual way.  But creatio ex nihilo is a more radical kind of causation than that.  Actualizing the very essence of a thing by conjoining existence to it is analogous to actualizing matter’s potential to be hydrogen or oxygen, but it is not exactly the same sort of thing as that.  We need to extend our use of the relevant terms (“potentiality,” “causation,” etc.) beyond their application to the sorts of case in which the terms were originally applied (i.e. cases in which a preexisting substrate is altered).  There is nothing unique to Thomistic natural theology about this.  It is precisely the sort of thing we do in physics when, for example, we extend our use of the term “curvature” to apply to space itself (whereas in its original usage, it applies only to the objects that occupy space).”

I don’t have much to add in response to this paragraph over and above what I have already said. I will point out, though, that nothing in this paragraph addresses the primary issue identified above. In particular, the question is not whether Thomists would agree; the question is whether the commitments of the Aristotelian proof would force anyone adopting said proof to agree. And nothing Feser says here does anything to address the latter question. [Indeed, the problem I level precisely acknowledges that there is no pre-existent substrate. That’s part of the engine of the problem. Nothing I say casts doubt on this; in fact, I need it my argument to go through. The more fundamental point is whether the Aristotelian proof violates it. And, first, nothing Feser says here addresses that question, while, second, I have argued above [which is just a more fully fleshed out form of the argument contained in the Sophia article] that it does violate it.]

Feser: “Naturally, there are crucial assumptions here – concerning the Thomistic metaphysics of essence and existence, the Thomistic theory of the analogical use of terms, and so on – that require further elaboration and defense.  The point, though, is that Schmid is hardly raising some issue that no one ever thought of before.  On the contrary, there’s a mountain of stuff written on it that Schmid’s remarks simply ignore.  Hence those remarks hardly constitute a serious objection.”

None of it, though, actually engages with the problem faced by the Aristotelian proof concerning what S’s potential for existence amounts to and that in which it inheres. The point, then, is that Feser is hardly raising some issue that I had never thought of before. On the contrary, there’s a mountain of considerations — ones that I explained earlier in this section on “A Tension?” — that Feser’s remarks simply ignore. Hence those remarks hardly constitute a serious objection to my objection.


[1] If you think it could inhere in something else, I have two responses: (i) this rejoinder just pushes the dust under the rug, for we could simply re-run the argument in terms of that something else’s potential for existence; and (ii) just imagine that the possible world under consideration is one in which God only creates S — in which case, the worry is wholly circumvented.


I conclude that Feser’s responses to my objection in the section “A Tension” fail.

The purely actual actualizer

Feser sets up the non-sequitur problem [or at least one of them]:

“Schmid’s final main objection is to claim that, even if it is granted for the sake of argument that the sheer existence of the water at t requires a sustaining cause, it doesn’t follow that this cause would be purely actual rather than a compound of actuality and potentiality.  In particular, he claims that all I am entitled to conclude is that there is a first actualizer at t whose own existence is not in fact being actualized by something else.  But that is consistent with the supposition that the existence of this first actualizer could in principle be actualized by something else.  And if it could be, then it would have potentiality, even if it is potentiality that is not being actualized at t.”

Now Feser writes:

“But this simply makes no sense.  Naturally, if the first actualizer is operating at t, then it must actually exist at t, and not merely potentially exist at t.  But in that case, then (if it is not purely actual) how can it have some potential to exist that is not being actualized at t?  For if such a potential were there but not being actualized at t, then the first actualizer would not exist at t, and thus not be causing (or doing anything else) at t.  Yet if such a potential is being actualized at t, then we are not really talking about the first actualizer after all, since in that case there would be something distinct from it that is actualizing its potential to exist (and that other thing would be the true first actualizer).

Or is Schmid saying that the first actualizer’s potential to exist at t is actualized, but that there is no cause that is doing the actualizing?  That can’t be right, because in this third objection, Schmid is, at least for the sake of argument, conceding the principle that the actualization of potential requires a cause.  (Or, if instead he rejects this principle, that would really just take us back to his first objection to the Aristotelian proof, rather than constituting a third line of criticism.)”

Here’s my response.

The non-sequitur criticism I level towards the Aristotelian proof employs an interpretation of Feser’s CP along the lines of the second reading. Recall that reading: whenever there is some transition from potential being to actual being — i.e., whenever something that exists in potency is brought from its (ontologically or temporally prior) state of existing in potency to its state of existing in actuality — there is an already actual cause of this transition.

Under this reading, my criticism makes perfect sense. In particular, it makes perfect sense to say that even if I granted that the water is transitioning in the way the second reading’s antecedent says, the ‘unactualized actualizer’ may very well not be transitioning in this way despite being an admixture of act and potency. [The mere fact of being such an admixture, after all, does not entail that the entity’s very existence results from such a transition.] And hence such an unactualized actualizer [or, more accurately, the mere existence thereof] — one that is an admixture of act and potency — would simply fall outside the quantificational domain of the antecedent of the CP [under the second reading, that is]. And hence the CP wouldn’t deliver that such an actualizer needs a further cause of its existence. And hence the inference to purely actual would fail. The takeaway: under the second reading of CP, my criticism not only makes sense but also succeeds.

To be sure, my criticism does not make much sense under the first reading. (That was never the intention.) But as we’ve seen, the first reading by itself defeats the Aristotelian proof. Not only was it not defended in Feser (2017, ch. 1), but it also renders the inference to A’s being purely actual a non-sequitur. See the earlier parts of this section [Section 3] for more on this.

Again, perhaps Feser would say that these readings are not exhaustive. And again, I would proceed through the responses I made to the suggestion of non-exhaustive-ness from earlier.

So, it is simply false, pace Feser says, that my objection at hand is “a muddle”.

Hang tight — we only have four more substantive paragraphs from Feser’s blog post to cover. Let’s take each in turn.

Feser: “The subsidiary points Schmid makes in the course of developing it aren’t much better.”

As we’re about to see, Feser’s responses to my subsidiary points aren’t much better than all his other points.

Feser: “For example, he says that, even if the first actualizer were purely actual with respect to its existence, it might still have potentialities in other respects (for example, with respect to changes it might undergo).  But the problems with this suggestion should be obvious from other things I say in Five Proofs.”

I address, in the Sophia article, what Feser says in chapter 1 regarding the objection. Feser performs a reductio on a thesis wholly unrelated to the one he needed to be performing a reductio on in order to establish pure actuality. As I put it in the paper:

What about what Feser says elsewhere in Five Proofs about agere sequitur esse and how it purportedly solves the gap problem? I actually included 9 responses to Feser’s argument there in the original manuscript of the Sophia article. But I was 3k words over the word limit, and so I had to cut it. In any case, here’s a document containing all nine of the reasons why Feser’s response there doesn’t work.

Allow me to spell out what I take to be the biggest non-sequitur worry here.

Suppose I’m a theist who thinks that God is timeless, immutable, impassible, but nevertheless has some potential for cross-world variance [e.g. different intrinsic knowledge states, numerically distinct timeless intentional acts, or whatever]. (NB: If you don’t like this picture — say, because you’re a divine temporalist — just substitute a temporal but necessarily actually existent God. All the same points will apply.) I then ask: why on Earth should I conclude, on the basis of the Aristotelian proof, that God (as I conceive him) requires a sustaining cause?

Feser’s premise (7), in fact, is simply irrelevant to God so construed. For premise (7) only applies in cases where things have some potential for existence. But God, so construed, is necessarily actually existent. There is no such thing as this potential in God’s case.

Feser’s premise (4) is likewise simply irrelevant to God so construed. For premise four only allows us to infer the need for a sustaining cause when there is, indeed, some kind of reduction from potency to act. But in the case of God so construed, there is no reduction of potency to act in respect of God’s existence, precisely because God is necessarily actually existent. God has no potential pertaining to his very substantial being or existence, despite having various potencies for cross-world variance [on the picture I’ve laid out].

Nothing in Feser’s proof, then, gives us any reason to think that God (so construed) couldn’t be the unactualized actualizer. But in that case, nothing in Feser’s Aristotelian proof justifies the inference to the unactualized actualizer’s being purely actual.

Indeed, I claim that this is clearly true when one inspects the justifications proffered for the demand for a sustaining cause in Feser (2017, ch. 1). The justifications focus on water (or other contingent substances) which are such that their constituents have the potential, at any given time, to exist as something else [or, as the case may be, to be absent from reality altogether]. It is precisely for this reason that Feser concludes there must be some actualizing, sustaining efficient cause that keeps such substances in being. [After rejecting appeals to the (sufficient) explanatory efficacy of past things, of course. For my responses to this point, cf. earlier in this post.] But, of course, this justification is wholly irrelevant to the existence of God (as construed earlier). Thus, Feser’s own motivations for demanding a sustaining cause simply fail to rule out the unactualized actualizer being non-purely actual. In which case, the proof fails.

I also claim that Feser’s reply to this worry [or, perhaps more accurately, what we could adopt as a reply on Feser’s behalf to this worry] on p. 66 clearly fails. Recall what Feser writes therein:

Look at the assumption Feser is attempting to perform a reductio on: “suppose this first actualizer had some potentiality that had to be actualized in order for it to exist”.

As I hope is clear at this point, the natural reply is: “what? That is not the suggestion. The suggestion is not that the first actualizer has some potential that needs to be actualized in order for it to exist. The suggestion is precisely the opposite — that its existence has no such potentials, i.e., that its very substantial being or existence has no potential whatsoever. It is a necessarily actual being. The suggestion, instead, is that there are potentials for accidental change [or potentials for cross-world variance in non-essential properties]. None of these need to be actualized in order for the being in question to exist. Your reductio thus completely misses the mark.”

Feser: “For one thing, if the first actualizer has potentialities even of the sort Schmid suggests, then it will be composite rather than simple.  But, Thomists argue, anything composite requires a cause, in which case this actualizer will not after all be purely actual even with respect to its existence.”

Two responses.

First, if Feser wants to make the success of his Aristotelian proof parasitic upon the success of the other proofs and thereby grant that the Aristotelian proof fails as an independent, standalone argument for God, fine by me. That’s all I ever intended to establish in the paper. Indeed, I made pretty much the same point in the paper about the irrelevance of responses to my article that point out ‘well, Feser justifies (or tries to justify) the need for a sustaining cause in his other proofs’. Here’s what I say:

My point was made in application to the independence of the Aristotelian proof from the Thomistic proof, but clearly the exact same applies mutatis mutandis to the other proofs. (In fact, in the original manuscript—which, again, I had to substantially (and to my dismay) shave—I made this point in connection to the other proofs.)

So, once again, I tried averting this mistaken appeal to Feser’s other proofs in my section “Dialectical Context”. But try as I might, I failed.

Second, I address the argument from composition elsewhere and explain why it doesn’t work. Here, for instance, is my chapter from my book on the Neo-Platonic proof. [A significant portion of this is also a minor R&R at a journal. So this is for personal use only, please. 🙂 ]

Feser: “For another thing, the Scholastic principle agere sequitur esse (“action follows being”), which I defend in the book, entails that the manner in which a thing acts reflects the manner in which it exists.  Hence, if something acts only by way of actualizing potentialities, then it would exist only by way of actualizing them; or, if instead it exists without the actualization of potentialities, then so too it acts without actualizing them.  No doubt Schmid would disagree with all this, but the point is that his objections simply presuppose that it is wrong, and do nothing to show that it is.”

Alright, so Feser is here bringing up the agere sequitur esse point. As I said, I had already included this in the manuscript but had to cut it. I’ll include, below, an assessment of Feser’s objection from agere sequitur esse from his book. Here it goes:

Feser’s second response to the allegation that his inference to pure actuality is a non-sequitur runs as follows:

“The principle agere sequitur esse basically says that these attributes and activities cannot go beyond that nature, any more than an effect can go beyond its efficient cause. Hence, a stone cannot exhibit attributes and activities like nutrition, growth, and reproduction, because these go beyond the nature of a stone.” (2017, pp. 174-175)

Feser argues for the principle on the basis of the PSR:

“If an effect could go beyond its total efficient cause, then the part of the effect that went beyond it would have no explanation and be unintelligible. Similarly, if a thing’s activities could go beyond its nature—if, for example, a stone could take in nutrients or use language—then this activity would lack an explanation and be unintelligible.” (2017, p. 175)

Here is how Feser applies agere sequitur esse to infer that the unactualized actualizer, A, cannot have potentiality:

“Might not we thus say that while it [A] had no potentialities with respect to its existence, it does have potentialities with respect to its activity…?

There are several problems with this suggestion, however, one of which might be obvious now that we have set out the principle agere sequitur esse, according to which what a thing does reflects what it is. If the first cause of things exists in a purely actual way, how could it act in a less than purely actual way? How could its acting involve potentiality any more than its existence does? A thing’s existence is, after all, what is metaphysically most fundamental about it; everything else follows from that… So, from where in its nature are the (metaphysically less fundamental) potentialities for activity that the critic suggests it has supposed to derive?” (2017, p. 185)

There are at least nine reasons why this argument does not succeed. First, as we saw in talking about the points on existential inertia from earlier, Feser has not even established that A [for the unactualized entity A] is purely actual with respect to its existence. All he has established is that A is in fact unactualized in respect of its existence. Hence, we cannot infer that A acts in a purely actual way, since it is not even established that A exists in a purely actual way.

Second, the argument is incapable of establishing that A is purely actual even assuming (i) A is purely actual with respect to its existence, and (ii) A’s being purely actual with respect to its existence entails that A acts in a purely actual manner. For there are potencies that are unrelated both to the existence and actions of the substance to which they belong. In other words, even if Feser could establish (i) and (ii), he still has not established that A is purely actual simpliciter. Consider, for instance, potencies to be affected in such-and-such ways unrelated to substantial change or A’s actions. Feser may retort that this would compromise A’s role as the terminus of the per se chain of actualizations of potentials for existence, but this is simply not so; ex hypothesi, A is being (or could be) affected in manners wholly unrelated to its existence and its role as existential actualizer. Feser’s argument here is therefore inept to establish A’s pure actuality simpliciter.

Third, as Feser himself points out, “a thing can in a sense ‘go beyond’ its nature if someone makes it do so. For example, the bits of wood that make up a puppet can move when the puppeteer makes them do so, even though they cannot move on their own” (2017, p. 175). So, assuming arguendo that A exists in a purely actual way, A could easily behave in ways that involve actualizations of potency, so long as something makes A do so. Importantly, such behaviors need not relate to the very existence of A, and hence there being potentials in A relating to such behaviors is perfectly compatible with A’s being purely actual with respect to its existence. Now, Feser might respond that this is impossible because being caused to behave is the actualization of a potential, and A is purely actual. But this is clearly question-begging, since whether A is purely actual full stop is precisely the question at issue.

Fourth, Feser equivocates on the principle agere sequitur esse. He first explicates it as something like ‘it is impossible for S, of itself, to perform action A if A is beyond or at variance with S’s nature.’ He then switches this understanding with something like ‘how a thing acts reflects what it is.’ But what does ‘reflect’ mean? And why should we accept this second understanding?

The second understanding by no means follows from the first. The second reading (avoiding the vagueness of ‘reflects’) seems more precisely formulated as ‘if S exists F-wise, then S acts F-wise.’ This second reading—or something very much like it—is what Feser needs if he wants to infer from the fact that A exists in a purely actual way that A acts in a purely actual way. But the first understanding neither means nor entails this second understanding, and the considerations adduced in favor of the first understanding (e.g., the PSR) do not support the second. From the fact that nothing can act so as to contravene its nature, it simply doesn’t follow that ‘if S exists F-wise, then S acts F-wise.’

Fifth, notice that the principle (under the first understanding) only states that a thing cannot do what its essence or nature precludes it from doing. Even granting Feser that A is purely actual in respect of its existence, we don’t thereby know anything about its essence that precludes it from having existence-unrelated potentials.[1] Indeed, we have already seen how this could work with changeable necessary beings. Such beings exist in a purely actual way, but they clearly can still have existence-unrelated potencies, such as accidental features as well as potencies for action.

Sixth, there are clear counterexamples to the second understanding of the principle (the one that seems required for Feser’s argument). Suppose it is true that if S exists F-wise, then S acts F-wise. Importantly, God exists in a necessary way. Hence, it follows God must act in a necessary way. But then God is unable to perform contingent actions, such as freely creating and sustaining the universe. Though perhaps you think all of God’s acts are necessary. No fret — there are still clear counter-examples. Since nothing exists in a way that is under its own control (for it would already have to exist in order to exert such control), this principle would entail—wrongly—that nothing acts in a way that is under its own control. Moreover, things exist in a way prior to their acting in various ways. But nothing could act in a way that their various actions. And on and on and on.

Seventh, an absurd form of occasionalism seems to follow from the principle if S exists F-wise, then S acts F-wise. According to Feser, any non-God S has no ability of itself to exist. The manner of S’s existence is hence wholly derivative from an extrinsic cause. S is a mere instrument in respect of its existence. But if S exists merely instrumentally, then (according to the principle) S can only act instrumentally. Just as S’s existence is wholly instrumental (to God’s causal bestowal of existence), S can only act in a wholly instrumental manner. God would be the only being that truly acts, for nothing else truly acts of itself but rather purely derives its ‘actions’ in a wholly instrumental manner. But this seems to be an absurd form of occasionalism. It is simply false that the only causes in the created order are mere instrumental causes of the creator; things have real, genuine causal power of themselves.

Here is the eighth problem. One of Feser’s explications of the principle is that what a thing does reflects what-it-is. In order to infer from such a principle anything about what A does, we would therefore need to know what-A-is. But even if Feser has shown that A exists in a purely actual manner, by itself that says little to nothing about what-A-is. It only tells us something about the manner of A’s existence, but nothing about the full breadth and depth of what-A-is.[2] Indeed, Feser seems to subtly beg the question here. One can only apply agere sequitur esse to A once one has established what-A-is; but what-A-is is the very question at issue, and hence one cannot assume that what-A-is is purely actual in order to infer that how-A-acts is purely actual.

Ninth, Feser’s point concerning the fundamentality of existence seems wrongheaded. Feser points out that existence is the most fundamental fact concerning a thing. But in order validly to infer from the conjunctive proposition <Existence is most fundamental to anything, and A is purely actual with respect to its existence> that any less fundamental aspects of A (like A’s actions) must therefore be purely actual, Feser requires (something like) the following principle: if, on one metaphysical level, x lacks F, then x also lacks F at less fundamental metaphysical levels. Not only does Feser give no justification for such a principle, but it also seems straightforwardly false. Presumably, physical facts about humans are more fundamental than psychological (or at least biological) facts about humans. But the physical facts, by themselves, lack features such as language comprehension and imagination, whereas such features are present in human psychological facts.

For these nine reasons, Feser’s second response does not succeed.


[1] Again, an existence-unrelated potential is just a potential that is not a potential for the substance to exist, begin to exist, cease to exist, or fail to exist. For example, the potential for a dog to bark is unrelated to the very existence of the dog (whereas a potential for the dog to die does so relate).

[2] And we cannot (in a non-question-begging manner) assume that facts concerning A’s existence exhaust facts concerning A, since that is precisely the question at issue (namely, whether there are or can be potential features of A despite A’s being purely actual with respect to its existence).


Next Feser says: “Schmid also oddly claims that my own position unjustifiably “presupposes the impossibility of changeable necessary beings” (emphasis added).  But in fact my position presupposes no such thing.  Rather, it claims to demonstrate the impossibility of changeable necessary beings.”

As I explained above, no such demonstration is provided. At all. The aim of that section was to point out that Feser’s sole justifications for premise (7) only apply to contingent things, and hence they simply fail to rule out the unactualized actualizer being a necessary-but-changeable being. (And, I add, the justifications also fail when applied to contingent things, as I’ve explained earlier in this post with respect to EIT.)

And, finally, Feser writes:

“Now as Schmid acknowledges, the charge that a first actualizer need not be a purely actual actualizer is in fact one that I anticipate and respond to in Five Proofs (at pp. 66-68).  He quotes a remark I make there to the effect that “the first actualizer in the series is ‘first’, then, in the sense that it can actualize the existence of other things without its own existence having to be actualized… in order for it to exist” (p. 66, emphasis added).  Schmid responds that his scenario is not one in which a first actualizer has some potentiality that has to be actualized in order for it to exist.  Rather, he is simply claiming that it is one in which a first actualizer needn’t in any sense be purely actual.  For example, it might have at t a potential with respect to its existence that is not in fact actualized at t

But this simply misses the point I made above. If a first actualizer has at t a potential with respect to its existence, then it simply will not exist at t unless that potential is actualized.  Hence its potential would indeed have to be actualized in order for it to exist.  Again, Schmid’s scenario simply makes no sense.”

But Feser here simply misses the points I made above. The proposal at hand is not one on which the first actualizer has at t a potential with respect to its existence. In fact, the opposite is explicitly stipulated: while the unactualized actualizer has no potential with respect to its existence, it nevertheless has potentials wholly unrelated to its existence. And so it’s simply false to say that its potential for existence would have to be actualized in order for it to exist. Again, Feser’s response simply makes no sense.

Summary

As I hope to have shown in this section, pretty much everything Feser says in response to me in his three sections — “Concurrent actualization”, “Essentially ordered causal series”, and “The purely actual actualizer” — fails.

4 New (thus-far unpublicized) criticisms

Here are new, thus-far-unpublicized criticisms of the Aristotelian proof. Note that Feser need not address these if he wants to respond to my response to his blog post. My purpose in including these problems is not at all to inundate Feser; it is, instead, to make this post a one-stop-shop that summarizes all my principal problems for the Aristotelian proof. My purpose in including this section, then, is not to say ‘in order for Feser’s response to work, he needs to address this section’. In fact, I take the opposite view — it is untrue that Feser needs to address this section in order for Feser’s response to work. This section, then, doesn’t constitute part of my response to Feser. It complements my response, to be sure; but it is not intended to be a part of it. As my section titles give away, my response to Feser’s blog post is in Section 3. (Why include this section, then? Because, again, the purpose of my post is multifaceted. It is not intended merely to be a response to Feser’s blog post. That’s part of the intent, but only part. One additional purpose of mine is to make this post a one-stop-shop containing the breadth of my criticisms of the Aristotelian proof.)

With that out of the way, let’s consider the first criticism.

4.1 Entailing EIT

The Existential Inertia Thesis (EIT) is variously characterized.[1] In simplest terms, it is the claim that at least some temporal concrete objects persist in the absence of both (i) sustenance or conservation from without and (ii) sufficiently destructive factors that would destroy the object(s). EIT does not aim to answer that in virtue of which objects persist; instead, it purports merely to describe the way they persist. EIT can (and should) be supplemented with an answer to the aforementioned question. Such answers represent inertialist-friendly metaphysical accounts of persistence. [Cf. Earlier in the present blog post wherein link documents to precisely such accounts.]

Before turning to my new EIT-based criticism of the Aristotelian proof, we need a clear articulation of EIT itself. For simplicity, my EIT will speak as if endurantism is true.[2] But nothing hangs on this—a similar thesis can be developed mutatis mutandis for perdurantism. [I develop such theses in another document linked earlier.] Here, then, is the thesis:

Existential Inertia Thesis (EIT): For each member O of some (proper or improper) sub-set of temporal concrete objects and for each time t such that O exists at some time t* earlier than t, (i) at t, O does not ontologically depend on the existence or activity of some concrete object O*, where O* is not a (proper or improper) part of O, and (ii) if O is not positively destroyed within the temporal interval [t*, t], then O exists at t.

First, some definitions. To positively destroy O at time t is to actively bring about O’s cessation at t, such that O endures through [t*, t) but not [t*, t], where t* < t. Ontological dependence is a hierarchical or concurrent dependence of a less fundamental object on the existence or activity of another, more fundamental object. (Examples include sustaining or conserving efficient causation, grounding, and functional realization.)

Second, some notes. First, my EIT quantifies only over a sub-set of temporal concreta. This allows the inertialist to affirm that at least some temporal concreta (e.g., perhaps non-fundamental, composite physical objects) are sustained or conserved in being from without. Second, my EIT only specifies that every inertially persistent object O does not ontologically depend on concrete objects that are not parts of O. This allows for views on which composite objects ontologically depend on their parts.

Third, a simpler statement of EIT. The thesis is simply that one or more temporal concrete objects persist in existence in the absence of both (i) concurrent sustenance or conservation from without and (ii) factors sufficient to positively destroy the object(s).

My new problem for the Aristotelian proof is not an argument that EIT is true. Indeed, I will not argue for or against EIT here. My new problem, instead, is that (i) the Aristotelian proof entails EIT, and that (ii) this fact undermines the argument itself. It is to these claims that I turn next.

4.1.1 The Problem

According to the proof’s causal principle (CP) captured in premise (4), no potential can be actualized unless something already actual causally actualizes it. Suppose object O exists at time t. Now, for O to go out of existence at some arbitrary t’ (such that t’ > t) is for a change to occur—it is for O’s potential to cease to exist to become actual. But since a potential can only become actual if something already actual causally actualizes it, it follows that O could only go out of existence at t’ if something already actual causally actualizes this. So, if nothing already actual causally actualizes O’s going out of existence at t’, O will not go out of existence at t’.

But remember that t’ represents any arbitrary time later than t. Hence, if nothing already actual causally actualizes O’s going out of existence from [t, t’] for any t’ > t, O will not go out of existence from [t, t’]. Hence, if nothing already actual causally actualizes O’s going out of existence from [t, t’] for any t’ > t, O will persist from [t, t’].

But absences are not actual things—they are precisely the absence or non-existence of actual things. A fortiori, an absence of sustenance or conservation from without is not an actual thing. Hence, an absence of sustenance from without cannot causally actualize O’s going out of existence at t’, precisely because only something already actual can causally actualize potentials, whereas absences are not actual.

Thus, if no positive reality[3] causally destroys O from [t, t’] for any t’ > t, O will persist from (t, t’]. But this is just to say that EIT is true. According to EIT, temporal objects persist without external sustenance so long as they aren’t positively destroyed. We already saw that the mere absence of sustenance couldn’t be an ‘already actual cause’ of O cessation at any time t’ later than t. Thus, so long as no positive reality comes along and positively destroys O, O will persist to t’ even in the absence of sustenance from without. So, CP seems straightforwardly to entail EIT.

But, crucially, EIT seems straightforwardly to undercut the Aristotelian proof’s demand for external sustenance of O in order for O to exist even for a moment. This demand for a sustaining efficient cause of act-potency composite objects is captured in premise (7). According to this premise, a changeable substance S cannot exist for a moment but for the conserving power of some sustaining cause. But this clearly contravenes EIT which, as we’ve seen, is entailed by CP.

This, then, is my first new problem for the Aristotelian proof. The proof’s CP (from premise (4)) entails EIT, which in turn defeats the proof’s seventh premise. Let’s consider some objections.

4.1.2 Objections

Objection. Recall one of the central claims of the new argument: for O to go out of existence at some arbitrary t’ (such that t’ > t) is for a change to occur—it is for O’s potential to cease to exist to become actual. But surely if change is the movement from potentiality to actuality, then ceasing to exist cannot be a change—non-existence is not a state of actuality. That is, a ‘potential to cease to exist’ is impossible since ceasing to exist (or non-being) is not some actuality to which O’s potency could point. Ceasing to exist simpliciter is not a change in the relevant respect (a potentiality becoming actual).

This, in essence, is the same (or at least a similar) problem I argued (in my Sophia article and in the section “A Tension?”) afflicts Feser’s Aristotelian proof. Prior to O’s existing, it cannot have any potentials, including a potential for existence. Naturally, then, its potential for existence cannot be caused to reduce from a state of potency to a state of actuality. But by the same token, posterior to O’s existing, it cannot have any potentialities or actualities, including a potentiality for or actuality of non-existence. Naturally, then, its potential for non-existence cannot be actualized.

Reply. I have four replies. First, my argument’s intended conclusion is conditional: if we grant the success of the Aristotelian proof, then EIT follows. So, suppose that Feser’s Aristotelian proof is problematic with respect to the ‘actualization of something’s potential for existence’. And suppose that, by the same token, the inference to EIT is problematic with respect to the ‘actualization of something’s potential for non-existence’. No fret—I am concerned only with the aforementioned conditional claim. Hence, if the Aristotelian proof itself treats actualizations of potentials in this problematic way, it is legitimate to use its own assumption against it. And if we reject the inference to EIT on this basis, we should similarly reject Feser’s Aristotelian proof on the same basis. So we can interpret this section’s argument as a dilemma: either accept the Aristotelian proof and, consequently, EIT, or else reject the inference to EIT but only at the expense of rejecting the Aristotelian proof. And as we’ve seen, the first option renders the Aristotelian proof self-defeating. Either way, then, one should reject the Aristotelian proof.

But—and this is my second response—perhaps there are ways to avoid the objection at hand. For instance, perhaps we can run the argument in terms of propositions. In particular, it seems plausible that all the motivations for Feser’s CP equally well support the following principle: whenever a proposition P changes in its truth value, there is an explanation (for that change) reporting either (i) that something already actual causally brings about P’s worldly correlate (in the case of P’s changing from false to true) or (ii) that something already actual causally removes P’s worldly correlate. Let’s call this principle the Propositional Causal Principle (PCP). PCP is extremely similar to Feser’s CP, since PCP says that changes in propositions’ truth values require causal explanations that either bring about or remove that to which the proposition corresponds.

Now let P be the proposition |O exists| and suppose P is true at t. By PCP, P can only be false at any t’ (where t’ > t) if something already actual causally removes P’s worldly correlate. But P’s worldly correlate is O (or O’s existing). So, P can only be false at any t’ if something already actual causally removes or destroys O. Hence, if nothing already actual causally removes or destroys O between t and t’, P remains true from t to t’. But the proposition |P remains true from t to t’| entails that O persists from t to t’. So, if nothing already actual causally removes or destroys O between t and t’, O persists from t to t’. And that, it seems, delivers EIT. (Bearing in mind, of course, the points about absences not being actual.)

Could Feser use a similar response to fend off Schmid’s (Forthcoming) objection from there being no such thing as O’s potential for existence under classical theism? It doesn’t seem so.[4] For in Feser’s case, Feser is concerned with the actualization of O’s potential to exist at a particular time. But, plausibly, no change occurs at a single time. Change takes time (even if the former is more fundamental than and grounds the latter). At a particular time t, then, any proposition P is either true or false. There is no change of truth values at t exactly, and hence PCP is inapplicable here (since its antecedent isn’t satisfied). One might think that Feser could focus on some time t* earlier than t at which O exists and then find some proposition regarding O’s existence (at t) that changes from t* to t and thus requires (per PCP) worldly-correlate-causal-actualization.[5] But there doesn’t seem to be any good candidate for such a proposition. If the relevant proposition is the (presently) tensed proposition |O exists|, then this doesn’t change truth value from t* to t, since at both t* and t (respectively) |O exists| is true. If the relevant proposition is the tenseless proposition |O exists at t|, then this, too, doesn’t change truth value from t* to t, since tenseless facts about what happens at times are fixed (permanent, unchanging).

Third, it seems plausible that we could use ‘possibility’ instead of ‘potentiality’ to run the argument. For even if there is no potentiality for O’s existence/non-existence in the sense of some disposition pointed towards an outcome that can be manifested or elicited when exposed to a relevant stimulus, it seems plausible that we can nevertheless legitimately speak of the possibility that O ceases to exist. And, plausibly, the same motivations favoring CP equally favor the principle that when a possibility is not actual from [t*, t) but is actual at t (such that t* < t), something already actual causally brings about the possibility’s actuality at t. This principle will equally facilitate the inference to EIT.

Once again, we can ask whether Feser can use a similar response to fend off Schmid’s objection. And, once again, it doesn’t seem so, precisely for the reason articulated in the previous case. For the principle in last paragraph, like PCP, requires the passage of time, unlike Feser’s demand for a sustaining actualizing cause at a particular time.

Fourth, it seems plausible that we can infer EIT employing the notion of ‘Cambridge change’, which (as I use it) refers to a change in the predicates satisfied by S without any corresponding gain or loss of S’s properties (whether intrinsic or extrinsic properties). In particular, we can focus on the predicates ‘is such that O exists’ and ‘is such that O doesn’t exist’. We can then consider changes to the extensions of such predicates. O ceases to exist just in case the potential for the first predicate’s extension to be empty becomes actual (else: the potential for the second predicate’s extension to be everything becomes actual). Since—per CP—every potential that is actualized requires something already actual to cause this actualization, and since the only plausible way to cause the relevant change to the predicate(s) is to cause O to cease to exist (i.e., to positively destroy O), we can infer the truth of EIT just as before.

I conclude, then, that my new problem for the Aristotelian proof survives the objection at hand.

Objection. While absences cannot serve as an ‘already actual causal actualizer’, perhaps the event of God’s withdrawing his sustaining activity can serve this role.

Reply. This is a valuable objection. I have at least three replies. First, this requires that there actually are such things as events—a controversial assumption which significantly weakens the Aristotelian proof. Yes, there are objects, and such objects gain and lose various properties. But are there such things as events corresponding to such gains and losses, over and above the objects and properties? It’s not obvious. (Note, moreover, that the claim that there are such things as events is an assumption not justified anywhere Feser (2017).) Second, the assumption seems to be rather un-Aristotelian. At least according to standard Aristotelian stories, it is substances, not events, that are the causal relata. This is significant given the underlying Aristotelian metaphysical framework within which the Aristotelian proof is cast (and within which various of Feser’s replies to objections are articulated).

Third, it’s not clear what this event consists in. Is it timeless, given that (under classical theism) all of God’s causal activities are timeless? Could there be a timeless event (i.e., happening or occurrence)? Setting this aside, there is a deeper worry. For the event in question is distinct from God.[6] But under classical theism, anything distinct from God is created and sustained by God (Rogers (1996, p. 167), Bergmann and Brower (2006, p. 361), Grant (2019, ch. 1), and Kerr (2019, pp. 15 and 44)). But surely whatever x that God creates and sustains is such that God is free to withdraw his sustaining activity of x. So, God could withdraw his sustaining power from the relevant event. But then there would be the event of God’s withdrawing this sustaining power from the event of God’s withdrawing his sustaining power of O. But then we could run the exact same reasoning ad infinitum. So, there could be an infinitely descending chain of divine-withdrawal events. But that seems absurd.

I conclude that the objection at hand—while valuable and suggestive—fails to avoid my new problem. I turn, next, to the second new problem for the Aristotelian proof.


[1] Adler, Feser, Beaudoin, Audi, Schmid, and company each have different articulations of the thesis in terms of the domain of quantification, modal register, and more. I will articulate a version of EIT I take to be a common denominator among their various characterizations.

[2] This is perfectly innocuous in the present dialectical context. First, participants in the debates about EIT almost uniformly speak as if endurantism is true. Second, Feser’s Aristotelian proof is itself cast in terms that speak as if endurantism is true. Third, a more eternalist-perdurantist view of temporal reality is arguably incompatible with Feser’s premise (2), i.e., the claim that change is the actualization of potential. For eternalist-perdurantists, there is indeed change over time. But such change doesn’t involve any times or any contents of times (e.g., substances, events, properties, etc.) being merely potentially existent and going from potentially existent to actually existent. Instead, all times (and contents thereof) are equally, eternally, and tenselessly actual. And so on eternalist-perdurantism, change is not the transition or reduction from potential to actual, pace premise (2). Thus, it is perfectly kosher to speak, in the present dialectical context, as if endurantism is true.

[3] Positive reality =def anything that is not an absence.

[4] Strictly speaking, my case doesn’t rest on an affirmative or negative answer to this question, as explained in my first reply. But it is valuable to consider nonetheless.

[5] We are focused on some t* at which O exists rather than at which O doesn’t exist because even proponents of EIT tend to grant that comings-into-being require external causes. We are concerned instead with O’s persistence once O exists, and hence the earlier-than bound we are considering should be one at which O does, indeed, exist.

[6] God, after all, is not identical to a withdrawal!

4.2 Pluralism about being

A number of authors have pushed quite forceful criticisms of pluralism about being. See, for instance, Merricks (2019), “The Only Way To Be”, for a pretty forceful attack on pluralism. [Fun fact: Merricks is coming on my channel in August to discuss this paper and to discuss what existence is, whether it’s a genus, etc.]

The second problem for the Aristotelian proof is that it presupposes pluralism about being (hereafter, pluralism). But we should reject pluralism. Before articulating the problem in more detail, let’s get a clear understanding of pluralism and its rival, monism. Trenton Merricks pithily summarizes the theses as follows:

Monism about being (monism for short) says that everything enjoys the same way of being. So monism implies, for example, that if there are pure sets and if there are mountains, then pure sets exist in just the way that mountains do. Monism can be contrasted with pluralism about being (pluralism for short). Pluralism says that some entities enjoy one way of being but others enjoy another way, or other ways, of being. (2019, p. 593)

With generic monism and pluralism articulated, we can now consider the specific form of pluralism relevant for our purposes here. This brand of pluralism—what we might call act-potency pluralism—recognizes two different ways of being: being-in-act and being-in-potency. Thus:

Act-potency pluralism: Everything either exists-in-act (hereafter, a-exists) or exists-in-potency (hereafter, p-exists), and a-existing is not the same thing as p-existing.[1]

We will let ∃a (‘there a-exists’) range over all and only those entities that a-exist and ∃p (‘there p-exists’) range over all and only those entities that p-exist. Because ∀xFx iff ~(∃x~Fx), act-potency pluralists endorse parallel biconditionals: ∀axFx iff ~(∃ax~Fx) and ∀pxFx iff ~(∃px~Fx). ‘∀axFx’ is read as ‘everything that a-exists is F’ while ‘∀pxFx’ is read as ‘everything that p-exists is F’. Neither ∀a nor ∀p are fully general, in which case act-potency pluralists—at least those that don’t accept generic existence (which will be defined below)—don’t have a universal quantifier.

We can now mount the second new problem for the Aristotelian proof:

15. If we should accept the Aristotelian proof, then we should accept act-potency pluralism.

16. We should not accept act-potency pluralism.

17. So, we should not accept the Aristotelian proof. (15, 16)

Premise (15) is relatively straightforward, since Feser (2017, pp. 176-184) is explicit that the notions of act and potency foundational to the Aristotelian proof represent different ways of being, and that everything that exists is either purely actual or a composite of act and potency—in which case, actual and potential being are universal and mutually exclusive ways of being. (Note that for Feser, not only is ‘being’ predicated of act and potency in different (albeit related) senses, but they also enjoy different ways or kinds of being.) Thus, Feser writes:

That ‘being’ is to be understood in an analogical way is clear given the distinction between potentiality and actuality… For potential being is not the same as actual being, but precisely because it is not nothing either, it is still really a kind of being. (2017, p. 180)

I take it, then, that premise (15) is on good footing. What about premise (16)? In its defense, I will draw on Merricks’ (2019) recent argument for monism as well as the insights in Loux (2012). Here is my argument for premise (16):

18. Act-potency pluralists should not accept generic existence.

19. If act-potency pluralists do not accept generic existence, then they cannot—by their own lights—state that everything is thus and so.

20. If act-potency pluralists cannot state that everything is thus and so, then they cannot state their view.

21. If one cannot state a view, one should not accept that view.

22. So, if act-potency pluralists do not accept generic existence, then they should not accept act-potency pluralism. (19-21)

23. If act-potency pluralists should not accept generic existence, and if their not accepting generic existence implies that they should not accept act-potency pluralism, then act-potency pluralists should not accept act-potency pluralism.

24. So, act-potency pluralists should not accept act-potency pluralism. (18, 22, 23)

25. If (24) is true, then we should not accept act-potency pluralism.

16. So, we should not accept act-potency pluralism. (24, 25)

I will justify each premise—(18), (19), (20), (21), (23), and (25)—in the following paragraphs. The premise under consideration will be placed in italics at the beginning of the relevant portion of my discussion.[2]

Premise (18). Generic existence is the ordinary, humdrum existence enjoyed by everything. (Many pluralists reject generic existence, and—as Merricks argues—all pluralists should reject it. For now, I am simply characterizing it.) ‘Generically exists’ is not shorthand for some disjunction like: a-exists or p-exists (or exists1 or exists2 …). “To generically exist”, writes Merricks, is “to exist, or to have being, or to be something” (2019, p. 599). Merricks gives at least three reasons why pluralists should not embrace generic existence. I adapt his reasons and apply them to the present context of act-potency pluralism. Here, then, are three reasons supporting premise (18).

First, act-potency pluralism is motivated, at least in part, by the conviction (or insight, or intuition) that potential things and actual things don’t exist in the same way. On this point, for instance, Feser writes: “For if potentiality and actuality had being or reality in exactly the same sense, then what could that mean if not that potentiality is really a kind of actuality or that actuality is really a kind of potentiality?” (2017, p. 182). This question seems to voice the conviction that there is not a way of being that potency and act alike enjoy. But this conviction, of course, contradicts the thesis that act and potency alike generically exist. Those who share the conviction should therefore reject generic existence. “But”, writes Merricks concerning abstract/concrete ways of being (which applies equally to actual/potential ways of being), “this conviction is the best motivation for pluralism. So this new version of pluralism [i.e., one that embraces generic existence] contradicts the best motivation for pluralism” (2019, p. 602). This is the first reason why act-potency pluralists should not accept generic existence.

Second, pluralisms that accept generic existence render themselves vulnerable to the most natural objection to pluralism. This objection—voiced, for instance, in van Inwagen (2014, p. 23)—alleges that radically different properties had by things suffices to explain the vast differences between them. No appeal to different kinds or ways of being is required. But once one accepts that everything generally exists, “it really does seem like a mistake to add that there is another way of being that is correlated with being concrete [or being actual], and another still that is correlated with being abstract [or being potential]” (Merricks 2019, p. 602). Why not simply hold that these correspond to different properties rather than additional ways of being? “And why pick ways of being that are correlated with those particular differences among generically existing entities, as opposed to others?” (ibid, emphasis added). In short, embracing generic existence renders pluralism “particularly vulnerable to the objection that pluralists posit a difference in being where there is instead but a difference in kind among entities that exist in the same way” (ibid, pp. 602-603). This is the second reason why act-potency pluralists should not accept generic existence.

Third, if everything enjoys one-and-the-same generic existence, then ‘being’ is (or can be) predicated univocally of act and potency. But Feser (2017, pp. 176-184, esp. 180) is explicit that—according to the version of act-potency pluralism presently under consideration—being is not predicated univocally of act and potency but instead only analogically. Thus, act-potency pluralists should not accept generic existence. Merricks extends this third reason further:

This new version [of pluralism] implies that all entities—properties, numbers, mountains, God, creatures, everything—generically exist. This implication is clearly in tension with the sorts of views that virtually all pluralists have tried to articulate and defend. This tension is illustrated by the fact that… historically influential motivations for pluralism are inconsistent with the claim that all entities generically exist. And this tension is not surprising. That is, it is not surprising that pluralism about being is in tension with the idea that there is a single way of being that everything enjoys. (2019, pp. 603-604)

We thus have three reasons to think that act-potency pluralists should not accept generic existence. I take it, then, that premise (18) is on solid footing.

Premise (19). If act-potency pluralists do not accept generic existence, then they cannot—by their own lights—state that everything is thus and so. This is the parallel of Merricks’ (2019) central contention that “pluralists can, by their own lights, make claims to the effect that everything is thus and so if and only if they take such claims to invoke… generic existence.” (p. 606). And in that case, “they cannot, by their own lights, state claims to the effect that everything is thus and so” (ibid, p. 608).

Without generic existence, act-potency pluralists are left only with a-existence and p-existence and their corresponding existential-like quantifiers ∃a and ∃p.[3] Given interdefinability—that is, given that ∀axFx iff ~(∃ax~Fx) and ∀pxFx iff ~(∃px~Fx)—act-potency pluralists are left only with ∀a and ∀p in terms of their universal-like quantifiers; they don’t have a fully general, universal quantifier.[4] But in that case, act-potency pluralists cannot state that everything—full stop, with perfect generality—is thus and so. Thus, premise (19) is true.

Now, pluralists are aware of this problem—that is, the problem of stating pluralism without employing the universal quantifier. Perhaps the act-potency pluralist can use (mutatis mutandis) Turner’s (2010, p. 33) way of stating (what Merricks calls) two-ways-of-being pluralism.[5] That is, perhaps the act-potency can state their view as follows:

26. ∀ax(∃ay(y=x) or ∃py(y=x)) and ∀px(∃ay(y=x) or ∃py(y=x))

For act-potency pluralists think that everything either a-exists or p-exists. Thus, by the pluralist’s lights, making a claim about all the entities in the domains of each of ∀a and ∀p leaves nothing out.

The problem with (26), though, is that it is simply a logical truth. This is because (26) simply says that (i) everything that a-exists either a-exists or p-exists and (ii) everything that p-exists either a-exists or p-exists. This is a mere logical truth. But as Merricks points out, “[e]veryone should endorse logical truths. So everyone should endorse [(26)]. So monists should endorse [(26)]. But monists should not endorse [act-potency] pluralism. So [(26)] fails to state [act-potency] pluralism” (2019, p. 595).

Merricks proceeds through different ways of modifying, supplementing, or replacing (26) in order to state pluralism. But none of them, argues Merricks, succeed. For instance, one might add to (26) the claim that something a-exists and something p-exists. But this modification still fails to state act-potency pluralism, since a pluralist who accepts a-exisence, p-existence, and another particular form of existence—someone we might call an act-potency-plus pluralist—also accepts the modified thesis. Hence, someone who denies act-potency pluralism would accept the modified thesis, in which case it fails to state pluralism. Alternatively, one might add to (26) that there are exactly two ways of being. But stating that there are exactly two ways of being ultimately requires a truly universal quantification: there is this way of being, that other way of being, and these are all the ways of being there are. Stating the latter conjunct requires a universal quantifier. The underlying problem for any such attempt to fix or replace (26)—indeed, the underlying problem for any attempt to state act-potency pluralism—is precisely the failure to state truly universal claims.

Let’s summarize the argument. Act-potency pluralists cannot state that everything is thus and so, and hence cannot state their view (since their view requires stating that everything either a-exists or p-exists). They cannot state that everything is thus and so because they don’t have a truly universal quantifier. For having a truly universal quantifier would entail having the simple, standard existential quantifier (given the interdefinability of the universal and existential quantifiers), which in turn expresses or captures generic existence (‘there exists’ rather than ‘there a-exists’ or ‘there p-exists’ or ‘either there a-exists or there p-exists’). But pluralists should reject generic existence, as we’ve seen.[6]

Premise (20). Recall the premise: If act-potency pluralists cannot state that everything is thus and so, then they cannot state their view. This is clearly true, since act-potency pluralism, recall, states that everything either a-exists or p-exists. This is a statement to the effect that everything is thus and so. Hence, if act-potency pluralists cannot state that everything is thus and so, then they cannot state their view.

Premise (21). This premise says that if one cannot state a view, one should not accept that view. Like (20), I take this to be clearly true.

Premise (23). This premise says that if act-potency pluralists should not accept generic existence, and if their not accepting generic existence implies that they should not accept act-potency pluralism, then act-potency pluralists should not accept act-potency pluralism. Like (20) and (21), I take this to be clearly true. It seems eminently plausible (if not self-evident) that if S should F, and if <S does F> implies <S should Y>, then S should Y. If—given my evidence—I should believe the Earth is round, and my believing the Earth is round implies that I should act as if the Earth as round, then surely it follows that I should act as if the Earth is round. I think, then, that premise (23) is on good footing.

Premise (25). According to this premise, if act-potency pluralists should not accept act-potency pluralism, then we should not accept act-potency pluralism. Once more, I think this premise is clearly true. If, by adopting a view, one thereby ought not adopt it, surely no one should adopt that view!

Having justified each of the respective premises, I conclude that (16) is true. Thus, since both (15) and (16) are true, it follows that (17) is true: we should not accept the Aristotelian proof.


[1] This formulation seems to encapsulate the first of the famous 24 Thomistic theses: “Potency and Act so divide being that whatsoever exists either is a Pure Act, or is necessarily composed of Potency and Act, as to its primordial and intrinsic principles” (Lumbreras 2016, p. 6).

[2] I follow Merricks in assuming the following: “monists take the existential quantifier, ∃, to capture (what they say is) the one and only way of being… That is, I shall assume that monists take the existential quantifier to range over all and only those entities that enjoy (what they say is) the one and only way of being. And I shall assume that pluralists take various existential-like quantifiers—∃1, ∃2, etc.—to capture (what they say are) the various ways of being” (2019, p. 593). Furthermore, as Merricks points out on the same page, the anti-pluralist argument does not depend on such quantifiers; for the arguments and debates at hand are not symbolic but fundamentally metaphysical.

[3] More precisely, they might think there are other ways of being (that are not a-existence or p-existence). They might, for instance, think there is a divine way of being (d-existence, say) and creaturely way of being (c-existence, say). But the sentence in the main text is fine as is, since the main point is that act-potency pluralists are, without generic existence, left simply with various specific existential-like quantifiers (∃a and ∃p and, as the case may be, ∃d, ∃c, and so on).

[4] Cf. Merricks (2019, pp. 596-598) for more on this commitment of pluralism.

[5] As Merricks (2019, p. 594) points out, several authors seem to agree that Turner’s approach (or something exactly like it in relevant respects) is the pluralist’s best hope for stating their view. See, e.g., Loux (2012) and van Inwagen (2014).

[6] To avoid expressing, by the (simple, standard) existentially quantified sentence ‘∃x(x=x)’, that something generically exists, act-potency pluralists might be tempted to read it as ‘something a-exists or p-exists’. But this won’t work, for the reasons articulated by Merricks (2019, pp. 600-601). In short, if ‘∃’ expresses the disjunction ‘∃a or ∃p’, then ‘~∃x(~Fx)’ expresses ‘~(∃ax(~F) or ∃px(~F))’ , which is equivalent to ‘~∃ax(~F) and ~∃px(~F)’, which in turn—given interdefinability—is equivalent to ‘∀ax(Fx) and ∀px(Fx)’. And since ‘~∃x(~Fx)’ is equivalent to ‘∀x(Fx)’, it would follow that ‘∀’ would express ‘∀a and ∀p’. But we have already seen that this renders the universal quantifier not truly universal, and hence we would land right back in the problem for act-potency pluralism.

4.3 Stage two

The third new [i.e., not-thus-far-publicized] problem for the Aristotelian proof is that — by my lights — nearly every stage two inference fails. I shall tackle each in turn.

4.3.1 Perfection

Let’s consider Feser’s first substantive inference to perfection. Feser argues:

An injured animal or damaged plant is imperfect insofar as it is no longer capable of realizing fully the ends its nature has set for it… A defect of this sort is… a privation, the absence of some feature a thing would naturally require so as to be complete. It involves the failure to realize some potential inherent in a thing. Something is perfect, then, to the extent that it has actualized such potentials and is without privations. But then a purely actual cause of things… possesses maximal perfection. (2017, pp. 29-30)

Here’s a reconstruction:

  1. Whatever is imperfect has privations or defects.
  2. Whatever has privations or defects has potencies.
  3. Whatever is purely actual lacks potencies.
  4. So, whatever is purely actual is maximally perfect.

Feser doesn’t define maximal perfection. We can reasonably infer, though, that ‘maximal perfection’ simply means ‘has no imperfections’, since the only conclusion that follows from (1)-(3) is that <whatever is purely actual is not imperfect (i.e., has no imperfections in the sense of privations or defects)>.

         With this understanding of maximal perfection in mind, we wish to highlight the limitations of the conclusion. First, the conclusion does not entail that the purely actual being is axiologically supreme, i.e., the greatest or most valuable being possible. All that follows is that the being fully realizes its nature—there is no feature it ought to realize (given its nature) that it fails to realize. Second, the conclusion only allows us to infer that the purely actual being possesses only perfections. It does not allow us to infer that the purely actual being possesses all perfections. And at least in contemporary philosophy of religion, a perfect being is typically understood as a being that possesses all perfections essentially and lacks all imperfections essentially (Bernstein 2014).

Third, the understanding of maximal perfection at play is, by our lights, deeply implausible. For Feser, something is (maximally) perfect if it doesn’t lack any features that (in some sense) it ought to have given its nature or essence. But consider a hypothetical being whose sole causal power is to flip a switch—it is incapable of doing anything else. Call such a being McSwitch. We can suppose further that McSwitch doesn’t fail in its exercise of this causal power—it manifests the ends ‘built’ into its nature or essence, meaning it has no privations or defects that it ought to realize but fails to realize. Implausibly, Feser’s understanding of perfection would entail that McSwitch is maximally perfect, as McSwitch is devoid of any privations or defects that it ought to manifest given its nature or essence. We find this implausible—surely McSwitch is not a maximally perfect being. The underlying problem in the understanding of maximal perfection is that it implausibly conflates x’s being maximally perfect with x’s being an ideal instance. McSwitch is a perfect instance of the type of being it is. Similarly, a ‘perfectly round circle’ is a shape that doesn’t have any privations or defects. These facts would—under Feser’s understanding—entail that McSwitch and the circle are maximally perfect. They simply ‘live up’ (as it were) to the ideal form or pattern of their respective types. Not only does this seem to carry little to no axiological weight, but it also has little to do with maximal perfection simpliciter. What’s more, even if this understanding of maximal perfection is correct, the McSwitch example shows us that—in principle—maximal perfection is not a uniquely or distinctively divine characteristic.

Fourth, it’s not at all clear that being defective entails having potencies. It seems possible in principle for there to be (say) an irredeemably defective or evil being. For example, some Christians hold that Satan is irredeemably evil, having no potential for (say) salvation or growth in virtue. In this case, the being in question has defects, but the defects are such that they have no potential to be rectified. It seems, then, that potency doesn’t necessarily follow upon defectiveness. (Christians might say that Satan at least once had the potential for salvation and virtue, but upon making his bad decision, he lost it. Fair enough; but now just imagine an alternative view on which there is a being just like Satan but who never had such potential. What is incoherent or impossible about that? Feser would need to rule this out as impossible, but he does no such thing.)

Feser might try to avoid this problem as follows. A defect of S involves some x such that either (i) S lacks x but ought to have x given S’s nature or else (ii) S has x but ought to lack x given S’s nature. But ought implies can. Hence, either S lacks x but can have x or else S has x but can lack x. And in either case, x has some potential. Hence, potency doespace the fourth point above, follow upon defectiveness.

One worry for this response is that it overlooks the fact that x might be extrinsic to S, and hence having or lacking x need not entail any potency that inheres in S. And so—pace the response above—it doesn’t follow that S has some potential from the fact that S can have or lack x.[1] Another worry for the response is that it assumes the principle ought implies can. But many philosophers think this principle is false. For instance, many philosophers are compatibilists about human freedom and reject the principle of alternate possibilities. And yet many such philosophers still think that (say) Hitler ought not to have killed millions.

We turn next to Feser’s inference to uniqueness.


[1] This is like how Feser (2017, p. 196) thinks that <God’s having or failing to have contingent Cambridge properties doesn’t entail that God has potency>. Now, one might object that the notion of perfection only applies to intrinsic properties. But this is not plausible. Independence or aseity is extrinsic, and yet surely it’s a perfection; knowledge is partly extrinsic, and yet surely it’s a perfection; ‘being the greatest possible being’ is extrinsic, and yet surely it’s a perfection; and so on. In response, one might just stipulate that ‘(maximally) perfect being’ only requires that the being is intrinsically perfect. But then the definition of ‘(maximally) perfect being’ faces seemingly obvious counterexamples, since then a maximally perfect being could have whole swathes of defective and terrible extrinsic properties.

4.3.2 Uniqueness

The importance of Feser’s inference to uniqueness is paramount. As we will see, it undergirds many of the other inferences to divine attributes.

As it is presented in the syllogistic proof, Feser’s argument is as follows. In order for there to be (say) two purely actual beings, there must be some feature that one has that the other lacks—some differentiating feature between them. “But,” argues Feser, “there could be such a differentiating feature only if a purely actual actualizer had some unactualized potential, which, being purely actual, it does not have” (2017, p. 36).

As it stands, however, this is inadequate. As we saw in Chapter 2, a differentiating feature could be had in terms of something other than an unactualized potential (e.g., some difference in actual features). And, moreover, we also saw there that this line of reasoning seems incompatible with Trinitarianism.

While the syllogistic version is inadequate, Feser offers a distinct but related justification elsewhere:

[T]wo or more things of a kind are to be differentiated in terms of some perfection or privation that one has and the other lacks. … [But] what is purely actual is completely devoid of any privation and is maximal in perfection. Hence, there can be no way in principle to differentiate one purely actual cause from another… (2017, p. 30).

There are a number of problems with this argument. First, we’ve been given no reason to think that the only two types of (differentiating) features are privations or perfections. In general, there is a distinction between ‘not possessing a perfection’ and ‘having a privation’. Having wings is a ‘perfection’ for an eagle, but not for a worm. Not possessing a feature is only a defect, lack, or privation if possessing that feature is in some sense characteristic of or proper to one’s kind. So, if one purely actual being (A1) has a perfection that the other (A2) does not have, this neither means nor entails that A2 lacks something (in the sense of a defect). And nor does it entail that A2 potentially has that feature—A2 could simply necessarily and essentially not have it.

One might object that act and potency divide reality exhaustively. So if we have two purely actual beings, A1 and A2, and A2 has a perfection X that A1 lacks, then either X is an act or a potency. But it can’t be a potency since we’re talking about purely actual beings. But it can’t be an act either, for if it were, then since A2 has X, it follows that purely actual beings can have X. And so A1 lacks a perfection it can have (thus entailing a defect or an imperfection), and so there is potency in A1. But ex hypothesi, A1 is purely actual.

The problem with this argument is that from the facts that (i) A1 has X and (ii) A1 is purely actual, it does not follow that (iii) for any other purely actual being A2, A2 can also have X. For one thing, there are clear counterexamples: take, for instance, the property of being identical to A1. Conditions (i) and (ii) but not (iii) are satisfied here. The argument is like saying that ‘since Joseph has the property being identical to Joseph, it follows that human beings can have the property of being identical to Joseph, and hence Daniel can have the property of being identical to Joseph’. But this is absurd.

To compound things further, the argument seems to assume the principle that if x and y are both F, then if x is G, y can be G. For suppose that this principle is false. Then from the facts that A1 and A2 are both purely actual and A1 is/has X, it simply doesn’t follow that A2 can be/have X. But this is precisely what the argument needs for its inference to succeed. But this principle is just false. Joseph and his dog are both animals, but Joseph has lots of features his dog couldn’t have (e.g., capacity for rational thought).

Another problem with the argument is that it merely presupposes that purely actual beings (would) form a kind, but no justification has been given as to why purely actual beings couldn’t occupy different kinds with (say) different sets of perfections.

One might object that two things are of the same kind if they have the same form. And for any form, either it is identical to pure actuality or it is not. If it isn’t, then it has some potency. So a purely actual being’s form is identical to pure actuality. But this means any purely actual being will have the same form as another purely actual being, and so purely actual beings are of the same kind. The argument here, we take it, goes something like:

  1. If x and y have the same form, then x and y are of the same kind.
  2. For anything that has a form, either that form is identical to ‘being purely actual’ or else it isn’t.
  3. If a form isn’t identical to ‘being purely actual’, then the form has some potency.
  4. If a form has some potency, then for any x that has that form, x has potency.
  5. So, any purely actual beings that have a form have one form that is identical to ‘being purely actual’. (2-4)
  6. So, any purely actual beings that have a form have the same form. (5)
  7. So, any purely actual beings that have a form are of the same kind. (1, 6)

We have several responses to this argument. First, (1) assumes that two things are of the same kind if they have the same form. This might be a part of traditional Aristotelianism, but if one wants to mount a successful second stage, we need to be given positive reason to think that this claim is correct. Maybe one would say it’s definitionally true of forms; but then we would simply call into question why we should conjoin, to (7), that a purely actual being has a form understood in a way that definitionally involves being of a kind in order to infer that any purely actual beings are of the same kind.

We also don’t find (3) plausible. Take the form ‘being a purely actual wavefunction with causal-power-probability-distribution D’. This form is distinct from ‘being purely actual’, since it has entailments that ‘being purely actual’ doesn’t have. But nor, we say, does this form have potency. After all, this form strictly entails being purely actual.

We find (4) similarly implausible. It is not, in general, true that if x’s form has F, then x itself has F. For instance, a form has the property of being a form, but it clearly isn’t the case that the substance that has that form similarly has the property of being a form. So, merely from the fact that the form (considered in itself and in the abstract) has potency, it doesn’t follow that that which has the form has potency.

And, finally, (7) doesn’t entail that purely actual beings are of the same kind. It only entails that if purely actual beings each have a form, then they are of the same kind. But the antecedent of this needs to be established.

Feser also argues for uniqueness as follows: “[F]or there to be more than one thing of a certain kind, there must be a distinction between the thing and the species of which it is a member, or… between the species and [its] genus… And there can be no such distinction without there also being a distinction between a thing’s potentialities and its actualities” (2017, p. 186).

But, first, we have been given no reason as to why purely actual beings would all fall within a kind. Second, no reason is given as to why a distinction between the thing and a species of which it a member (or between the species and its genus) would entail potencies. The genus and species could simply be wholly actual, with no potential to begin, cease, vary, or admit of different specific differences. Feser gives an example of a genus—animality—which stands in potency to rationality, as animality has the potential also to have (say) dog-nessas a specific difference instead (ibid). But no reason is given as to why this entails potencies within a genus not admitting of alternative specific differences. Moreover, even if Feser’s argument succeeds, it would only entail that the genus (or—if we are talking about the relation between species and members—the species) has potencies; nothing automatically or necessarily follows about the particular concrete things within the genus having potencies.

Finally, this second line of argumentation likewise poses a problem for Trinitarianism. For under Trinitarianism there’s more than one member of the ‘kind’ divine person, in which case there must be some privation or perfection (and—per Feser’s reasoning—potency) that one divine person has that the others lack. But this would entail potency within God, and that’s incompatible with God’s being purely actual. (And if you deny that divine persons make up a ‘kind’, why not deny the same thing of purely actual beings?)

We don’t think, then, that Feser’s inference to uniqueness works. But perhaps you have a lingering worry. Perhaps you are wondering, “without one of the purely actual beings having potency, what could differentiate them? In virtue of what could they be individuated?”

We have three responses. First, many philosophers think the Identity of Indiscernibles is false, since individuation or distinctness is (or can be) primitive. In that case, there need not be some feature that grounds things’ distinction. At the very least, we need some positive argument in favor of the principle. Second, the problem of trinitarianism rears its head: If the Father and Son are purely actual, what distinguishes them? If having some distinguishing feature entailed potency (as would need to be the case for the present worry to have teeth), then no purely actual thing could be trinitarian.

Third, some difference in actual, not potential, features of the purely actual beings could individuate them. Suppose that one purely actual being is a timeless, non-spatiotemporal universal wavefunction we can call Bob. Bob is timeless and so immutable and so has no potential for change. (We can also suppose that all of Bob’s intrinsic properties are essential to Bob, in which case Bob has no potential for (non-Cambridge) cross-world variance). So, Bob is purely actual simpliciter. Suppose that Bob has a probability distribution D for giving rise to such-and-such quantum fields. Now just imagine another non-spatiotemporal universal wavefunction called Fred that has a different probability distribution, D*. (Say, instead of having a 1% objective probabilistic causal power (as Bob does) to bring about quantum field Q, Fred has a 2% probability here.) We here have a feature that individuates Bob and Fred (namely, D versus D*), and this doesn’t by itself entail potency in Bob or Fred.[1]

         One might object at this point that Bob and Fred, in the previous scenario, would be composite, and that this entails the possession of potency. For example, perhaps their parts have the potential to be separated.

         We have three replies. First, it’s not clear to us that Bob and Fred must be composite. Perhaps Bob and Fred are numerically identical to everything intrinsic to them—in which case, they would not be composite (per the classical theistic understanding of parthood canvassed in Chapter 1). You might think it obvious that (say) Bob couldn’t be identical with D and that Fred couldn’t be identical with D*. But many find it equally as obvious that God couldn’t be identical with his omniscience, omnipotence, goodness, aseity, necessary existence, and so on. Arguably, the moves classical theists make to respond to charges along the lines of ‘omniscience is obviously distinct from omnipotence’ will equally equip us with moves in response to charges along the lines of ‘Bob/Fred is obviously distinct from D/D*’.

Second, we think it’s false that composition entails potency. Consider the number two. The number two has various properties, such as the property of being even. But anything with various properties is a composite thing, by the lights of those who accept a broadly classical theistic understanding of parthood. So the number two is a composite thing. But the various parts of the number two do not have the potential to be separated (since the number two, if it exists, would be a necessary thing—it wouldn’t just happen to exist in some worlds and not others). Moreover, all the intrinsic properties of the number two (e.g., being a number, being even, etc.) are essential to the number two, in which case it has no inherent potencies. The number two, then is both composite and devoid of potency. Potency therefore doesn’t follow upon composition.[2] More generally, we see nothing wrong with Bob or Fred being such necessarily existent beings all of whose intrinsic properties are essential to them. And this would mean that Bob and Fred are purely actual despite being composite. (If, of course, we grant that they’re composite in the first place.)

Third, we can simply modify the scenario to avoid composition altogether. At least by Feser’s and other Christian classical theists’ lights, the fact that a purely actual being is trinitarian doesn’t entail that it is composite. But then it would seem intolerably arbitrary to suppose that a unitarian or binitarian purely actual being must be composite. We could therefore simply suppose that Bob and Fred are qualitatively identical to the classical theistic God except that Bob is binitarian (or unitarian) whereas Fred is trinitarian. Here we have more than one purely actual non-composite being with individuating features.

For the reasons surveyed above, we conclude that Feser’s inference to uniqueness fails. Next we turn to Feser’s inference to goodness.


[1] Note that all we need to do in this dialectical context is provide a coherent counterexample to the claim that the only individuating features could be potencies. We don’t need to justify or defend our counterexamples as true.

[2] Again, whether you think the number two exists is irrelevant, since we are concerned with in principle counterexamples.

4.3.3 Goodness

Because being less than fully good means having some privation—and because having some privation entails failing to realize or actualize some potential feature that is proper to a thing—it follows (so Feser argues) that the purely actual being is fully good.

Feser himself recognizes the limitations of this line of reasoning, however. He writes that the “sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ operative here is the one that is operative when we speak of a good or a bad specimen, a good or bad instance of a kind of thing” (2017, p. 217). By itself, then, this inference is unable to establish the purely actual being’s moral goodness (and, in particular, the kind of omnibenevolence we want to ascribe to God). Indeed, it’s not clear to us how the inference to fully good is any different from Feser’s inference to maximally perfect. Both of them argue that the purely actual being fully realizes the ends set by its nature, and hence that it is maximally perfect and fully good. Like Feser’s account of maximal perfection, this account of goodness would entail that an exact, geometric circle (not the approximations we draw or print) would be ‘fully good’, since it has no privations and fully realizes its essence. It would also entail that McSwitch is fully good.

Our purpose in bringing these points up is not necessarily to argue that the inferences fail (though, to the extent that one finds it implausible that McSwitch is maximally perfect or fully good, one has pro tanto reason to reject the inferences). Instead, our purpose is to highlight their extreme limitations. Neither inference—to maximally perfect and fully good—delivers any religiously significant, distinctively divine attribute.

Feser also argues that because there is goodness in creation, there must likewise be something analogous to goodness in the creator: “For given the principle of proportionate causality, whatever good there is or could be in the world must in some way be in God. But if something is the source of all possible goodness, then there is an obvious sense in which it is all good” (2017, pp. 221-222).

This, however, won’t do. For starters, because Feser can only infer that there is a single purely actual being that causes all else to exist by demonstrating uniqueness, and because the inference to uniqueness fails, this inference to omnibenevolence likewise fails. For the purely actual being is only guaranteed to contain whatever good is in ‘creation’ if the purely actual being is the single creator of that creation.

Second, the Principle of Proportionate Causality (PPC) states that whatever is in an effect must be in the cause in some way—formally, virtually, or eminently. But if the purely actual creator possesses moral goodness in a mere ‘eminent’ fashion (as opposed to possessing it formally or virtually), this seems only to involve the creator having the higher or greater capacity to produce creatures with moral goodness. It doesn’t entail any moral goodness (let alone maximal goodness) formally (i.e., actually) possessed or exemplified by the creator itself.[1]

Indeed, there are parody arguments in the vicinity that are not compatible with such an appeal. For instance, there are extended, material, and composite things in creation, but it would seem incompatible with classical theism to infer from this that there must likewise be something analogous to extension, materiality, or composition in the creator.

Let’s turn to the inference to omnipotence.


[1] As W. Matthews Grant and Mark Spencer write, “For the perfections in creatures need not be had by God in the same way; rather, they can be really in creatures, but only… in God inasmuch as He can be causally responsible for them in creatures” (2015). They continue: “For instance, acts of discursive reasoning are perfections in some creatures, and healthy skin a perfection in others. These perfections must somehow exist in God, but it doesn’t follow that God (questions of the Incarnation aside) engages in acts of discursive reasoning or has healthy skin” (2015, fn. 67).

4.3.4 Omnipotence

Here’s Feser’s argument for omnipotence:

  1. To have power entails being able to actualize potentials.
  2. Any potential that is actualized is either actualized by the purely actual actualizer or by a series of actualizes which terminates in the purely actual actualizer.
  3. So, all power derives from the purely actual actualizer.
  4. But to be that from which all power derives is to be omnipotent.
  5. So, the purely actual actualizer is omnipotent. (2017, p. 37)

But as Feser recognizes, the success of this demonstration presupposes the success of the demonstration of uniqueness—and hence this demonstration fails (on account of the failure of the demonstration of uniqueness). The reason it presupposes uniqueness is because (2) presupposes that every distinct per se chain of actualizations of potential ultimately terminates in one and the same purely actual being. Without presupposing uniqueness, however, there is no guarantee that the terminus of each of the countless causal chains within reality is the same being.

There are, however, more proximate worries for the argument even granting (i) the uniqueness of a purely actual being, and (ii) the per se existential causal dependence of all changeable beings on the causal activity of the purely actual being. (The second assumption is required because the argument presupposes not only the uniqueness of the purely actual being but also that all existent changeable things (and all their powers) causally depend on the purely actual being. Without this, it is simply false that the purely actual being is that from which all power derives.)

For starters, the argument requires that the derived powers in question are either directly or indirectly explained or caused by the purely actual being. There are two reasons for this. First, supposing that the purely actual being is perfect or fully good, such a being clearly doesn’t have the direct power to do horrendously evil things. Second, the very nature of Feser’s Aristotelian proof entails that the purely actual being only has all powers in a direct or indirect manner. For the argument rests on hierarchically ordered chains of sustaining causation, meaning that the purely actual being could (for all the argument specifies) be capable only of sustaining certain things in existence by means of one or more intermediaries.

But this seems to pose a problem for the inference to omnipotence. For all the argument shows, the purely actual being could have a single direct power—the power to causally produce (say) a particular being (a finite spirit, say). This spirit, in turn, could have all (possible) direct powers except the power to produce itself. For all the argument shows, such a spirit is a necessary intermediary in any per se chain.

It would seem more fitting to label the spirit omnipotent rather than the purely actual being. After all, in such a scenario the purely actual being has a single (direct) power—the power to produce the spirit. But the spirit has much more power; it can (directly) produce multiverses, angels, demons, galaxies, philosophers, and amoebas. Intuitively, a being with only a single (direct) power is not omnipotent. Feser’s account of omnipotence misdiagnoses this scenario, and hence his inference to omnipotence fails.

4.3.5 Intelligence

To derive the intelligence of the purely actual being, Feser appeals to the PPC. According to the PPC, whatever feature F exists in an effect E must exist in the total cause of E in some manner (formally, virtually, or eminently).

John Cottingham has argued that the PPC implies an absurd heirloom view of causation wherein features are ‘passed down’ (as it were) from cause to effect: “[H]elium has properties which were not present in the hydrogen from which it was formed by fusion,” and “a sponge cake… has many properties—e.g. its characteristic sponginess—which were simply not present in any of the material ingredients (the eggs, flour, butter)” (1986, p. 51).

Feser rightly thinks this objection is mistaken, since the PPC does not specify that F must be in the total cause formally (i.e., actually); F simply has to be present in the (total) cause formally, virtually, or eminently. Anticipating this, Cottingham writes: “One may be tempted to say that the spon­giness must have been ‘potentially’ present in the materials, but this seems to defend the [PPC] at the cost of making it trivially true” (1986, p. 51).

Feser replies that while this explanation is minimally informative, it is not uninformative (2017, p. 172). Hence, the effect may be present potentially in the cause—either in terms of a passive potency (i.e., a capacity to be affected in some way) or in terms of an active potency (i.e., a causal power to produce an effect in another). These roughly correspond to virtual and eminent presence in causes (respectively).[1]

With the stage set, we can turn to Feser’s inference to intelligence:

  1. The purely actual actualizer is the cause of all [changeable] things.
  2. So, the forms or patterns manifest in all the things it causes must in some way be in the purely actual actualizer. (From PPC)
  3. These forms or patterns can exist either in the concrete way in which they exist in individual particular things, or in the abstract way in which they exist in the thoughts of an intellect.
  4. They cannot exist in the purely actual actualizer in the same way they exist in individual particular things.
  5. So, they must exist in the purely actual actualizer in the abstract way in which they exist in the thoughts of an intellect. (2017, p. 37)

What to make of this argument?

One problem is that (3) is a false dichotomy. Recall the minimally informative understanding of the PPC: F must be in the total cause formally, virtually (as a passive potency), or eminently (as an active potency or causal power). All that we can infer, then, is that the purely actual being either has F formally, as a passive potency, or as a causal power to produce F. Now, a purely actual being clearly has no passive potencies. We can grant, moreover, that the purely actual being cannot possess all F’s formally. But this doesn’t entitle us to infer that F must be in the purely actual being in an abstract or universal way as thoughts in an intellect. Rather, all we’re entitled to infer is that the purely actual actualizer has the power to produce things with F.

Here’s another worry for the argument. Feser holds that something has (or is) an intellect if it can ‘possess’ or ‘contain’ the form of something without actually becoming the thing in question. But no argument is offered for this account of the intellect. Moreover, there are many (prima facie) perfectly coherent alternative accounts of something’ being an intellectual thing in terms of mental representation, powers to implement formal rules, the realization of certain functional states, and so on. Indeed, I sometimes find it difficult to wrap my mind around what Feser’s account of intellection actually consists in. How could the very essence or form of (say) felinity somehow reside in you (or your mind)? Why is it not the case that you simply have a concept of the nature or essence of felinity, a kind of mental representation? If this latter account is true, the mere fact that the forms of things are ‘possessed by’ or ‘contained in’ the purely actual being is insufficient for intelligence.


[1] There’s significant debate about how to understand virtual and eminent containment, and unfortunately Feser does not unpack what he means by the terms. Here’s how I use the terms: Roughly, F is present virtually in the cause if F can be educed or ‘drawn out’ (as it were) from the cause by means of some causal operation on the cause. For instance, cookie shapes are virtually present in dough, as they can be ‘drawn out’ or educed from it. Virtual containment corresponds to passive potencies of the object from which the effect can be drawn out. Roughly, F is present eminently in the cause if the cause has ‘higher’ or ‘greater’ causal power to produce F (as when—to use one of Feser’s examples—one has the ability to print genuine twenty-dollar bills). Eminent containment thus corresponds to active potencies of the object from which the effect is produced. This is supported by something Feser writes elsewhere. He writes that his example of virtual containment involves “the passive potency of my bank account to have twenty dollars drawn from it,” while his example of eminent containment involves “the active potency of the Federal Reserve Bank printing press to run off a new twenty dollar bill” (2014, p. 174). Other commentators are explicit that S’s eminently containing F at least involves S’s ability or capacity to produce or bring about F (Gorham 2003). For more on virtual and eminent containment, see Newlands (2013; 2016) and the references therein.

4.3.6 Omniscience

Here is Feser’s argument for omniscience:

  1. Since it is the forms or patterns of all things that are in the thoughts of this intellect, there is nothing that is outside the range of those thoughts.
  2. For there to be nothing outside the range of something’s thoughts is for that thing to be omniscient.
  3. So, the purely actual actualizer is omniscient. (2017, p. 27)

As Feser himself recognizes, the success of this inference presupposes the success of the inferences to uniqueness and intelligence. Since (as we’ve argued) these inferences fail, it follows that the inference to omniscience fails.

Here are two, more fundamental problems with the argument. First, all Feser has shown (granting arguendo the inferences to uniqueness and intelligence) is that the abstract forms or patterns of concrete things exist in the purely actual being as abstracted concepts in an intellect. But concepts alone are merely the atomic components of thoughts; the mere possession of (all) concepts neither means nor entails the possession of (all) thoughts. Second, even if we can arrive at propositional thought, knowledge doesn’t simply involve truths ‘being in the range’ of one’s thoughts (whatever that means). It’s not sufficient for knowledge merely to think a thought. What’s required in addition is something like warrant or justification or based-on-reason-ness.

Now, Feser anticipates both of these worries, and we’ll consider his responses in turn. In connection with the first problem, Feser writes:

[T]hat the state of affairs of the cat’s being on the mat holds at any instant is also due to God’s causal activity. [So,] given the principle of proportionate causality… the state of affairs of the cat’s being on the mat in some way exist[s] in God. In particular, it must exist as the proposition that the cat is on the mat. … [T]he proposition that the cat is on the mat, considered as the content of a thought, is the correlate within an intellect of the state of affairs of the cat’s being on the mat. (2017, p. 209)

Here, Feser is arguing from (i) the PPC and (ii) the fact that the purely actual being is the cause of all states of affairs to the conclusion that the propositions that describe such states of affairs must exist in the being’s intellect as the contents of thoughts. There are at least four problems with this argument.

First, it misapplies the PPC. Recall that the PPC only requires that the features of effects exist in the cause formally, virtually, or eminently. Now, the state of affairs in question cannot exist formally within the cause, as an actual cat and mat do not reside in God. Moreover, God has no passive potencies from which a cat and mat can be educed. We are only entitled to infer, then, that the cause has the eminent causal power whereby it is capable of producing the state of affairs in question. And the possession of such a causal power neither means nor entails propositional thought.

Second, the Aristotelian proof only affirms that individual changeable substances require efficient causal sustenance in order to exist. Nowhere was it defended or established that states of affairs also require a sustaining cause. Now, Feser does argue that states of affairs obtain due to God’s causal activity. But this is ambiguous between (i) God’s causing the state of affairs to obtain, and (ii) God’s causing the substances to exist, which in turn—along with their exemplifying certain properties, say—constitute or ground the obtaining state of affairs.

But only (i) facilitates an inference (by means of the PPC) to the containment (in some way or another) of the state of affairs within the total cause, as the PPC deals only with effects (and their features) being contained in their (direct) causes. But on (ii), the state of affairs is not a direct effect of God; only the substances (and perhaps their actions) contained in the state of affairs are God’s effects. No reason has been given that any causal activity on the part of the purely actual being is required to actualize the state of affairs over and above the causal activity required to explain the being and activities of the concrete objects comprising the state of affairs. Feser therefore hasn’t established that the purely actual being causes such states of affairs (as opposed to causing the atomic constituents of such states of affairs which themselves go on to ground the obtaining states of affairs).

The third problem with the argument is that even if the purely actual being has justification (to which I turn later), and even if the purely actual being has propositional thought, this is still insufficient for knowledge. Beliefs or propositional attitudes are plausibly required in addition. And the mere fact that propositions are contained as thoughts within the purely actual being neither means nor entails that such a being also has beliefs or propositional attitudes. In other words, it’s not enough merely to contain the propositions in thoughts; one must also take certain attitudes toward such propositions or thoughts—believing them to correctly (or incorrectly) represent reality, i.e., taking them to be true (or false). Feser has established nothing about the purely actual being’s attitudes toward its propositional thoughts (or whether it’s even capable of having such attitudes).

Fourth, even if we could show that it has propositional attitudes or beliefs toward the propositions, there is no guarantee that the propositional attitudes ‘match’ the truth values of the propositions in question. Even if the PPC entails that the state of affairs must exist in the cause qua propositional thought, this is perfectly compatible with a propositional attitude toward the given proposition being either affirmative or negative. For the propositional content exists in the cause regardless of the cause’s attitude towards it. Hence, the PPC alone is categorically insufficient for propositional attitudes that are truth-tracking.

Let’s now tackle Feser’s response to the second fundamental problem relating to justification. Note, first, that getting to this stage requires lots of assumptions: uniqueness, intelligence, propositional content within thoughts, propositional attitudes, and truth-tracking attitudes. I have argued that all of Feser’s inferences to these assumptions fail. Nevertheless, let’s see what Feser has to say:

[O]ne knows some proposition p when (a) one thinks p is true, (b) p really is true, and (c) one thinks p is true as a result of some reliable process of thought formation. … [T]here can be no more reliable way of determining whether some proposition p is true than being able to make it the case that it is true. … [A]s God himself causes it to be the case that the cat is on the mat, God certainly has a reliable way of ‘finding out’ whether such a proposition is true (2017, pp. 210-211).

But, plausibly, making it be the case that a proposition is true can only confer justification if one is in some sense aware that one is making the proposition true. For instance, a baby makes a whole host of propositions true by causing states of affairs to obtain, but the baby does not thereby possess knowledge of such propositions. What’s missing is (in part) an awareness or cognizance of making the propositions true. But Feser hasn’t established that the purely actual being even has awareness, let alone awareness that it is making certain propositions true. Moreover, there needs to be a relevant connection between S’s belief that x obtains and S’s causing x to obtain in order for S to have knowledge that x obtains. Otherwise, the belief seems only accidentally related to the proposition’s being true. But Feser has given no justification as to why this relevant connection obtains between the purely actual being and the states of affairs it (allegedly) causes. Hence, Feser has not adequately addressed the problem of justification.

Let’s turn, now, to Feser’s stage two inference to freedom.

4.3.7 Freedom

Feser argues for the free will of the purely actual being (referred to as God) in stages. First he argues that such a being has a will, and second he argues that the will is free.

“God apprehends all the things that could exist, and causes some of those things actually to exist while refraining from causing others of them to exist. Hence, there must exist in him something analogous to willing the former and not willing the latter.” (2017, p. 224)

Note first that the success of this inference presupposes uniqueness, intelligence, omniscience, and so on. More importantly, the language is somewhat ambiguous (e.g., ‘refraining’ can be interpreted in a number of ways, but one natural interpretation seems merely to presuppose will). A more neutral description of the situation is that the purely actual being is (purportedly) not necessitated to create everything it comprehends. But this is perfectly compatible with a non-willed, indeterministic causation. No argument has been given as to why such a being’s non-necessitated actions are intentional and under agential control (i.e., that it is up to the purely actual being what it brings about).

Let’s turn to the argument that the purely actual being’s will must be free. Feser notes, first, that nothing external to it could possibly compel it to act as it does. That would entail potencies to be affected (which is absurd, given it has no potencies). Feser also argues that nothing internal to such a being compels it to act either, as its concepts don’t by themselves specify or determine whether their referents will (or must) be in reality:

“Now, there is nothing in the concept of a lion that makes it necessary that lions exist, nor is there anything in the concept of a unicorn that makes it necessary that unicorns do not exist. Nor is there anything about any other concept that necessitates that the former exist and the latter do not. Before creation, then, a world with unicorns in it was as possible as a world with lions in it.” (2017, p. 225)

Hence, such a being has an uncompelled (and thus free) will.

There are a number of problems with this argument. First, it does not establish that such a being is uncompelled. Feser’s argument that nothing internal to such a being compels it to act seems unjustified, as it presupposes that we have a complete (or else representative) grasp of all concepts that do or could exist within the divine intellect. For if this condition is not met, then for all we know, there are concepts within the purely actual being’s intellect that make it necessary that their referents—or the referents of other concepts—exist (or make it necessary that the purely actual being bring about their existence). (Consider, for instance, that merely by examining their concept of water, people before the discovery that water is H2O may very well have reasoned that nothing in the purely actual being’s concept of water makes it necessary that water is H2O, and hence that this being could make water that is not H2O. This argument is clearly mistaken, but it’s precisely what Feser is asking us to infer about this being’s concepts of creatures. And just as there is a ‘hidden necessity’ in water’s being H2O, Feser gives us no reason [in the Aristotelian proof and stage two inferences, that is] to think there aren’t such hidden necessities concerning creaturely existence.) Hence, for all we know, such a being is internally compelled. Without the presupposition, the inference fails. But no justification has been given for this presupposition.

Moreover, why should we think that the only candidate internal compulsions are concepts within the purely actual being’s intellect? Not only does Feser assume this with no justification, but it also seems obviously false. Perhaps the very nature of perfect love or goodness provides ‘internal compulsion’ (as it were). Goodness, it is often said, is by nature diffusive; and a number of authors have argued that this entails that a perfectly good God must diffuse God’s goodness to creation. Concepts simply aren’t the only candidate necessitating factors, pace what would need to be the case for Feser’s argument to succeed.

4.3.8 Immateriality

Feser writes: “Since to be material entails being changeable and existing within time, an immutable and eternal cause must be immaterial and thus incorporeal or without any sort of body” (2017, p. 29). Unfortunately, nowhere in Feser (2017) does Feser justify why being material entails being changeable and existing within time. Perhaps he takes it to be self-evident. But it is by no means self-evident. Atemporal wavefunction monism—a view on which there exists a fundamental, physical, non-spatiotemporal entity—is a perfectly respectable view in philosophy of physics. If we understand ‘material’ and ‘physical’ to be synonyms, then it simply follows that there are perfectly respectable views within philosophy of physics on which there is an unchangeable, timeless material thing. Unless and until Feser demonstrates that such views are false, his inference to the immateriality of the unchangeable, purely actual being simply fail.

Allow me to say more about wavefunction monism.

In quantum mechanics, the state of a system is often said to be specified by an object referred to as either the wavefunction or the state vector. In quantum cosmology, quantum gravity, and in some interpretations of quantum mechanics, the state of the entire universe (or even the entire physical world) is understood to be, in principle, represented by a wavefunction called the universal wavefunction. Physicists and philosophers of physics often use the term wavefunction to refer to both a bit of mathematics and to a physical object represented by that mathematics (Ney 2021, p. 34). I will do the same here. Let’s define wavefunction monism as a family of views that share the following principles: (i) there is a hierarchy of fundamentality; (ii) there is exactly one most fundamental object; and (iii) that one most fundamental object is the universal wavefunction.
Wavefunction monists differ in how they understand the universal wavefunction as well as how they understand the relationship between the universal wavefunction and all other physical objects. For David Albert (2019, 2015, 2013, 1996, Unpublished), Barry Loewer (1996), Alyssa Ney (2021, 2020, 2013, 2012), and Jill North (2013) the universal wavefunction is a field either defined on configuration space or on some more exotic state space (Ney 2020; also see chapter 4 in Ney 2021). For Julian Barbour (1999), the universal wavefunction is a field defined on superspace, that is, the space of possible configurations of space-time, and with a distribution and amplitude defined by the Wheeler DeWitt Equation. And, for Sean Carroll (Forthcoming; 2019) and co-author Ashmeet Singh (2019), the universal wavefunction is a state vector in Hilbert Space.

Now, we can distinguish between temporal and atemporal wavefunction monism. According to atemporal wavefunction monism, the universal wavefunction is both non-temporal and non-spatial. For atemporal wavefunction monists, space-time itself can be exhaustively explained in terms of the universal wavefunction. For example, atemporal wavefunction monists might maintain that space-time, as well as all of the spatiotemporally extended objects that inhabit space-time, are functionally realized by the universal wavefunction. Because the universal wavefunction is atemporal, the universal wavefunction does not persist in time. But if the atemporal wavefunction monist is right that, at least in principle, the universal wavefunction exhaustively explains space-time, as well as all of the material objects that inhabit space-time, the universal wavefunction will, in principle, exhaustively explain the persistence of spatiotemporal objects.

Here are the references concerning wavefunction monism.

4.3.9 Timelessness

As I define terms here, S extrinsically changes just in case S gains or loses some relational feature to something disjoint from S (i.e., to something ad extra). Here, then, is my argument against Feser’s inference to timelessness:

  1. Either S’s undergoing extrinsic change is compatible with S’s being timeless, or it is not.
  2. If it is compatible, then Feser’s inference to timelessness fails.
  3. Either some non-eternalist view of time is true, or eternalism is true.
  4. If it isn’t compatible and some non-eternalist view of time is true, then classical theism is false.
  5. If it isn’t compatible and eternalism is true, then the Aristotelian proof fails.
  6. So, either Feser’s inference to timelessness fails, or classical theism is false, or the Aristotelian proof fails. (1-5)

Justifying premise (2)

Feser first argues that since “existing within time entails changeability, an immutable cause must also be eternal in the sense of existing outside of time altogether. It neither comes to be nor passes away but simply is, timelessly, without beginning or end” (2017, p. 29).

But it’s not at all clear why the mere fact of being within time entails being intrinsically changeable. Recall that changes in x’s relation to something else—if they involve no intrinsic changes to x—are mere extrinsic changes. Hence, it won’t do merely to point out that x’s temporality entails that x gains or loses features (e.g., existing at t1, existing at t2, and so on). This is because gaining or losing features underdetermines whether an intrinsic or extrinsic change has occurred; it must be demonstrated in addition that the features in question are intrinsic features rather than extrinsically relational ones.

But Feser has given no reason as to why this is the case. In particular, he has given no reason as to why the gain or loss of temporal features entails intrinsic changes to the persistent object. Indeed, we seem to have intuitive reason to reject this. Imagine a physically non-composite fundamental particle ‘sitting’ in empty space with zero net velocity (relative to some reference frame) and undergoing no physical processes (decaying, emitting or absorbing electromagnetic radiation, etc.).[1] Imagine further that (say) a billion years pass while the particle remains in this state. Intuitively, our imagined particle has simply remained intrinsically unchanged throughout the years. Nothing has happened to it intrinsically; it hasn’t—of or within itself—undergone any process. Sure, it has gained or lost various features (existing at a specific time, say, if we wish to countenance this as a feature). But intuitively, this does not constitute a change within the particle itself.[2]


[1] The fact that ‘empty space’ in actuality happens to be a buzzing realm of change and energy transactions is not relevant. Simply imagine a world with empty space of a different character. Also, by ‘empty space’, we don’t mean that the world the particle inhabits is empty (save the particle); the world could be brimming with changing entities.

[2] One may think that temporal becoming is an obvious case of change to persistent objects. But it’s not at all clear that temporal becoming essentially involves intrinsic change in/to persistent objects themselves as opposed to (say) extrinsic changes, or else intrinsic changes in something other than the object in question (e.g., intrinsic changes to the universe (or spacetime) itself, or certain other physical mechanisms/processes in a shared spatiotemporal framework, or what have you).


Perhaps other tools within the Aristotelian or classical theistic tradition can fix the inference. To this end, philosopher Paulo Juarez reasons (on the basis of an Aristotelian account of time) as follows:

That which is Purely Actual must be timeless, precisely because time is the measure of change in natural substances… Hence, given that whatever answers to the charge of Pure Actuality must in principle be immutable, it follows that such a reality must be timeless or non-temporal. (2018, pp. 21-22)

We might plausibly formalize this line of reasoning as follows:

  1. Time is the measure of change.
  2. If time is the measure of change, then anything temporal is subject to change.
  3. No purely actual thing is subject to change.
  4. So, no purely actual thing is temporal. [1-3]
  5. So, anything purely actual is non-temporal or timeless. [4]

What to make of this argument?

There are a number of reasons why this argument is unsuccessful.[1] First, it’s not clear what time as ‘the measure of change’ means. There are countless different ways to measure change, many of which seem tangential to time. One can measure the quantity of changes that occur, their magnitude, their spatial extent, their quality, their probability, and so on. These ways of measuring change seem irrelevant to time.

In order to avoid this predicament, it seems we must specify that time is the measure of change qua its temporal dimension, temporal extent, or temporal succession (rather than, say, along the dimension of temperature). In other words, it seems that we must specify (in some form) that the measure is one of temporal duration.

It should be clear, however, that the analysis is now circular. The proposed analysis presupposes the very thing in need of explication (namely, time itself). In analyzing time in terms of the measurement of change qua its temporal dimension or extent, we have employed the very thing requiring explication.[2]

Second, even if we grant the account of time, we submit that the original argument still doesn’t work. Consider again the original argument’s second premise: if time is the measure of change, then anything temporal is subject to change. By our lights, though, the consequent simply doesn’t follow from the antecedent. For, plausibly, the antecedent only says that the existence of time entails that there is some change or other; it does not say that everything that exists in time must be such that it intrinsically changes. For all the argument shows, temporal reality could be such that (i) objects O1, O2, … On exist in time, (ii) one of the aforementioned Oi is intrinsically unchangeable, and (iii) time nevertheless exists (and passes) in virtue of the changes in objects other than Oi (and to which, we can suppose, Oi relationally stands).

Thus far we’ve been operating under the assumption that extrinsic change and timelessness are compatible. Under this assumption, we have found that Feser’s inference to timelessness fails. And this is just premise (2) of the argument. Hence, premise (2) is true.


[1] One (potential) problem I shan’t explore beyond this footnote is that this account of time seems to entail the counter-intuitive result that time doesn’t exist at the first moment of time. (Whether there is such a first moment of time is irrelevant, since we can simply use this as a thought experiment to draw out an implausible consequence of the Aristotelian view of time.) For change is not instantaneous; change only occurs over a series of moments. Hence, at the first moment of time, there is no change. And if there is no change, and if time is just the measure of change (such that time presupposes the occurrence or existence of change), then time simply doesn’t exist at the first moment of time. (Or so it would seem.) But that seems absurd. For a defense of this line of reasoning, see Mullins (2020, pp. 222-223).

[2] It should be noted, though, that Saudek (2020, ch. 9) provides a detailed derivation of a neo-Aristotelian account of time in terms of change—without presupposing temporality—similar to the one we’ve been considering. According to Saudek (and simplifying a bit), time is a substance-dependent local parameter established by repeated, different instances of a type of change (2020, p. 122). Our criticism here thus does not target all Aristotelian or neo-Aristotelian views of time. (This doesn’t mean that the reductive definition of time in terms of change that Saudek proffers is without problems or ultimately succeeds in abstaining from presupposing time. We actually have doubts here; it seems to us, for instance, that Saudek’s reductive analysis of the ‘before’ relation (which is the bedrock for his reductive analysis of time) is prima facie perfectly compatible with the relation’s being a timeless relation of (say) ontological priority. To our minds, then, Saudek would indeed need something further to differentiate between temporal and ontological priority in his analysis of the ‘before’ relation, and it’s hard to see how this ‘something further’ would not presuppose time. But I shan’t develop this criticism further here.)


Justifying premise (4)

Suppose that presentism is true: the only time that actually exists (and hence the only temporal things that actually exist) is the present. By ‘times’, I mean global temporal states of reality (and their contents—events, objects, etc.) that either were actual, are actual, or will be actual.[1]

Now, if presentism is true, then for some item x, the proposition that ‘x is actual’ genuinely changes in truth value (simpliciter). This simply follows from the fact that the contents of past and future times (e.g., events and objects) aren’t actual under presentism, but either were actual or will be actual. A simple example illustrates this point nicely. Consider the proposition that ‘dinosaurs are actual’. Now, this proposition was (say, 10 billion years ago) false simpliciter, full stop. Then it became true (simpliciter) when dinosaurs existed. But now it’s false. So, presentism plausibly entails that propositions/statements genuinely change truth value.[2]

God, qua omniscient, knows all truths about temporal actualities. But if ‘x is actual’ genuinely changes in truth value, and if God knows all truths about temporal actualities, then God’s knowledge changes. This follows from the fact that one can know a proposition only if the proposition is true. Knowledge is factive—one can only know that p if p is, in fact, true. It cannot be the case that one knows p but p is false. For example, it is true that 1+1 is 2, and so it is simply mistaken for someone to say ‘I know that 1+1 is not 2’.

What this means is that if p genuinely goes from being true to being false, then it cannot remain the case that one knows p. For if it remained the case that one knows p, then since knowing p presupposes p’s truth, it would follow that p itself remained true. But ex hypothesi, p went from being true to being false and hence did not remain true. Thus, if some p goes from being true to being false, then God goes from knowing it to not knowing it.[3]

So, if p changes (say) from true to false, then one’s knowledge that p cannot remain unchanged (for then p would remain unchanged in respect of being true). So, if God knows all true propositions, and if some such propositions genuinely change in truth value, God’s knowledge must likewise change. This simply follows from the factivity of knowledge. To deny this is to deny the factivity of knowledge.

From the preceding paragraphs it follows that God’s knowledge changes (i.e., God transitions from knowing that x is actual to not knowing that x is actual). But if God’s knowledge changes, then God isn’t timeless. For there seem to be two options for such a change: it’s either an intrinsic change or an extrinsic change. But the former is an anathema to DDS, since God is necessarily and essentially identical to anything intrinsic to him, and hence God cannot undergo any intrinsic changes (lest he cease to exist!). But nor can the change be an extrinsic one, since — per premise (4) — we are assuming here that extrinsic change is incompatible with timelessness. Hence, whether the change in knowledge is intrinsic or extrinsic, God isn’t timeless.

Alternatively, one might adopt a more radical extrinsic model of divine knowledge on which the only changes in question are wholly outside God—not only is there no intrinsic change in God, but there’s also no change in God’s relation or connection to the changing facts outside God. But surely this is not an instance of God’s knowledge changing; it’s just an instance of the facts ‘out there’ changing. It’s baffling (to us, at least) how God’s changing knowledge could consist wholly in the facts entirely ‘out there’ changing—not even accompanied by changes in God’s connection to those facts!

Another problem for this more radical extrinsic model is as follows. Consider Schgod. Schgod is qualitatively identical to the classical theistic God except that Schgod only knows necessary, unchangeable truths. Schgod is thoroughly uninfected by contingency and changeability, so much so that he is only aware of (and only knows) necessary and unchangeable things. He doesn’t know contingent, changeable things and, indeed, is incapable of knowing them. Other than that, though, Schgod is pure, undifferentiated actuality; Schgod is numerically identical to everything in Schgod across all worlds, and Schgod is absolutely simple. In extramental reality, there is only the one, absolutely necessary, simple, ungrounded Schgod.

Now, what makes Schgod different from the classical theistic God? What, in other words, explains their difference? Classical theism (and, more specifically, this ‘radical extrinsic model’ of divine knowledge) seems to debar any answer to this question.

Consider two worlds, both of which are identical except that Schgod is in one whereas God is in the other. By classical theism’s own lights, in extramental, non-linguistic, non-predicative reality, these two worlds are utterly (qualitatively) identical. There is no difference between them. On the part of God/Schgod, there is only a single absolutely simple, necessary act—none of God’s intrinsic or extrinsic features change as God gains and loses knowledge of the contingent, changeable realm. The same is true of Schgod. It would seem, then, that the difference between Schgod and God is inexplicable—there is nothing in reality in virtue of which they are differentiated from one another. The only difference is a predicative difference—that is, a mere difference in our predications of changing knowledge to the two beings. But there exists nothing to ground, explain, or account for such differences.[5]

Before considering some objections to my line of argument here, I wish to bring to light one final dialectical point: Feser himself agrees that divine immutability (and, thus, timelessness) is incompatible with God’s knowledge changing: “[God] would constantly be acquiring new pieces of knowledge, such as the knowledge that it is now time t1, the knowledge that it is now time t2, and so forth. But all of this would involve change, and God is immutable” (Feser 2017, p. 200). At the very least, then, my argument is nicely situated within the dialectical context of Feser’s proofs.

At this juncture, one might distinguish between logical relational and real relational change. Different authors articulate the distinction between real and logical relations differently. Some suggest that ‘x (merely) logically changes’ means that there’s a mere change in how we conceive or predicate things of x; nothing in extramental reality concerning x—i.e., neither a polyadic relational feature x bears to something else y, nor a monadic intrinsic feature x has in itself—changes. (Where ‘feature’ stands for any positive ontological item of any kind.) By contrast, they hold that ‘x really changes’ means that there is a genuine gain or loss, in some way or another, in the life of x. In other words, in extramental reality, x gains or loses some feature, whether intrinsic or extrinsic. Still other authors articulate the distinction differently (cf. Henninger (1987)). With the distinction between logical and real relations in hand, one might object that God’s changes are only ever mixed relational changes (such that God merely logically changes whereas creation really changes).

However, considerations of mixed relations are orthogonal to our specific argument. For our argument only needs the following thesis: For any knowing subject S, S’s going from knowing p to knowing ~p does not consist merely in changes in features belonging to things wholly outside of (wholly disjoint from, entirely apart from, utterly external to) S, i.e., changes such that no feature within S, nor any polyadic relational feature S has, changes. The support for this thesis is variegated, but one approach is intuition: it seems obvious that S’s going from knowing Pluto doesn’t exist to knowing that Pluto exists couldn’t merely involve the facts wholly ‘out there’ changing (i.e., Pluto coming into existence), not even accompanied by any change in S’s relation or connection to said facts (where relation, again, signifies some polyadic relational feature S bears to said facts). Another approach is the objection from rendering the difference between God and Schgod inexplicable. Overall, my assessment is that mixed relations are orthogonal to our argument.

In the next section, I shed light on three potential objections to this line of argument.

Objections

Objection One. The argument assumes that God’s knowledge is propositional. But classical theists are well within their epistemic rights in denying this assumption. Aquinas, for instance, denies that God’s knowledge is propositional (cf. Summa contra gentiles I.58).

Reply. While the argument was originally cast in terms of propositional knowledge, this is inessential. All the argument requires is that God knows ‘x is actual’ in some form or other. If he knows it in some form or other (even non-propositionally), and if x genuinely goes from being actual to non-actual, then God’s non-propositional knowledge must likewise change. Suppose, for instance, that God knows temporal facts by acquaintance, not propositionally. Even so, one can only be acquainted with x if x exists. If x doesn’t exist—if x is precisely nothing—surely one cannot be acquainted with x. For example, one cannot be acquainted with Narnia, a unicorn, or a square circle.[6]

More fundamentally, knowledge is factive regardless of whether the knowledge is propositional. And since, under presentism, the facts themselves change, it simply follows (per the reasoning given in the previous section) that, under presentism, God’s knowledge changes. And this regardless of whether the knowledge is propositional.

Finally, even if the argument requires that God knows propositions—e.g., God knows that the sky is blue, that 2+2=4, and so on—whether that knowledge is constituted by a relation between God and propositions is a separate question. And, plausibly, it is only this further fact about the knowledge’s being constituted of more basic bits that is incompatible with God’s simplicity.

Objection Two. While presentism may hold true from the perspective or frame of reference of creation, it is not true from God’s perspective or frame of reference. For God, all times are equally actual—all times are present to him in timeless eternity.[7] Hence, God’s knowledge need not change in order for him to be omniscient, since he simply tenselessly and unchangingly knows all truths about the times that are present to him (i.e., all times).

Reply. First, this objection endorses an intuitively implausible view according to which whether or not something actually exists is relative to reference frame. But it seems plausible that something either exists or it doesn’t, full stop. There seems to be no existence-for-me or existence-for-you (or even existence-for-God); there’s just existence. While not incoherent, adopting frame-relative existence would at least provide some evidence against divine timelessness given the intuitive implausibility of such an appeal.[8] In itself, this result is valuable.

Second, suppose it is, indeed, true that all times exist for God. But, then, surely concrete objects—from God’s perspective or frame of reference—persist by having temporal parts at each time between their earliest and latest temporal boundaries. In that case, though, worm theory or stage theory (or some other perdurantist account) is true from God’s perspective. But then all the arguments against these views of persistence—because they are perfectly general, applying whether or not the persistence in question is true simpliciter or just true from God’s perspective—similarly apply against the suggestion in Objection Two.[9]

Third, this objection seems not to remove the problem of changing divine knowledge but rather to relocate it. So long as there is any real dynamism or becoming in reality, God (in his omniscience) will have to know the dynamic facts. Hence, even if all times equally exist from God’s frame of reference, it nevertheless remains the case that God still changes in his knowledge of what is actual-from-the-perspective-of-creatures. And because such facts from the creaturely perspective genuinely change, it follows that God’s knowledge of such facts changes.

Objection Three. The argument only establishes that if presentism is true, then timelessness and omniscience (within the context of classical theism) are incompatible (assuming the falsity of the Compatibility Thesis). But the classical theist can simply reject presentism.

Reply. This objection contains a kernel of truth, but it fails to recognize that the argument reaches a stronger conclusion than that classical theism [assuming the incompatibility of CT with extrinsically relational gains and losses of features] requires a mere denial of presentism. For the argument (if successful) also establishes that any view of time with real dynamism and becoming (e.g. the growing block theory, the moving spotlight theory, etc.) is incompatible with the conjunction of omniscience and classical theistic timelessness. (Keeping in mind, of course, the working assumption within this section that timelessness is incompatible with gaining or losing extrinsic properties.) It thereby establishes (if successful) not merely classical theism’s commitment to a denial of presentism, but also its commitment to eternalism, according to which (i) all times are equally and tenselessly actual, and (ii) there is no objective dynamism or temporal becoming. For only by adopting eternalism is the threat to omniscience and timelessness averted. If even one time (which either was, is, or will be actual) doesn’t actually exist simpliciter, then propositions about the contents of such a time must genuinely change their truth values when that time comes to be (or passes away).


[1] Yes, I used ‘temporal’ in my explication of ‘time’. But I am not intending to give an informative analysis of what a time consists in; rather, I’m merely conveying what I mean by ‘time’.

[2] Two notes. First: This presentation of the argument seems more forceful than many typical presentations (which focus on temporal indexicals like ‘it is now noon’). Instead, our argument focuses on the actual existence of things, which plausibly isn’t a mere indexical fact. This is an advantage over many traditional presentations of the argument, since indexicals might pose problems for even non-classical theisms. For instance, consider the proposition ‘it is sunny here’. One might think this is difficult to square with the omnipresence (or else non-spatiality) of God, as there is no unique ‘here’ for such a being. Our argument avoids any issues pertaining to indexicals. Second: Even if one holds that propositions or statements are eternally true if true at all, our argument can simply be cast in terms of changing facts (under presentism) that God’s knowledge must track.

[3] In the case at hand, God would go from knowing p to knowing ~p—the argument does not say that there are truths God doesn’t know. Also, one might object at this juncture: perhaps God simply didn’t know p while p was true, and hence God didn’t go from knowing p to not knowing p. But this is incompatible with divine omniscience, according to which, for any proposition p, if p is true, then God knows p. God cannot be ignorant of some truth.

[4] See Schmid and Mullins (Forthcoming) for a more extensive criticism of such extrinsic models.

[5] It won’t do to say that what explains it is that God is omniscient while Schgod isn’t, since (i) that is to describe, linguistically or predicatively, the difference between them, not to pinpoint that in virtue of which they’re different, and (ii) the very question at issue is whether God counts as omniscient in the first place in light of the Schgod example, and hence it would be question-begging to appeal to omniscience at this juncture. (On this last dialectical point, see Schmid and Mullins (Forthcoming, p. 10).)

[6] Acquaintance is just an example to illustrate the general point concerning non-propositional knowledge. We are not attributing this account to the classical theistic tradition.

[7] For proposals along these (or similar) lines, see Leftow (2018), Leftow (1991, pp. 230-235), Stump and Kretzmann (1981), and Stump (2003, pp. 131-158).

[8] Many philosophers of time agree with this assessment, as evinced by one standard argument against presentism based on special relativity. For according to (a standard interpretation of) special relativity, simultaneity is relative. But that would mean that whether or not something exists would be relative to reference frame if presentism is true. It is telling that many (though by no means all) eternalists and presentists alike treat this as a notable problem for presentism if such an interpretation of special relativity is correct.

[9] Such arguments are typically based on the nature of persistence, or consciousness, or moral responsibility, or what have you. (For a treatment of some such arguments, see Craig (2000).) And these will equally apply to perdurantism-from-God’s-point-of-view.


Justifying premise (5)

If all times are equally actual and eternalism is true, then the Aristotelian proof arguably faces a defeater. For eternalism seems to cut against an analysis of change as the actualization of potential. And, recall, Feser’s second premise states that “change is the actualization of potential” (2017, p. 35).

If eternalism is true, then it seems that the act-potency analysis of change cannot be categorically or universally true. For under eternalism, all times (and contents of such times) are eternally, tenselessly, and equally actual. But that means that no times (or contents of times) are potential and transition from potency to actuality. Hence, the following argument arises:

  1. There is temporal change (i.e., change over time).
  2. If change is the actualization of a potential and there is temporal change, then some times (or their contents) are merely potential (i.e., not actual).
  3. But all times (and their contents) are actual. (Eternalism)
  4. So, change is not the actualization of a potential. (1-3)

To be sure, Feser aims to preempt this worry by stating that the Aristotelian proof succeeds irrespective of eternalism’s truth. According to Feser, the existence of the whole four-dimensional spacetime manifold would involve the tenseless reduction of potency to act and so would require a sustaining cause (2017, p. 50). And this hierarchical causal chain (so he argues) must eventually terminate in a purely actual being.

Whatever we make of the demand for a sustaining cause for the whole spacetime manifold, this response is not convincing. For the failure of the act-potency analysis of change concerning temporal changes should remove our confidence in its universal applicability—including its applicability to reductions of potency to act concerning the very existence of things. If the act-potency analysis of change gets a diverse class of phenomena wrong (i.e., changes in the temporal order), we are not warranted in accepting it as a proper analysis of change. At the very least, we would need some principled reason as to why the analysis would still work in the case of existence despite its failure in other cases. (It should be clear that we’re not categorically claiming that act and potency are incompatible with eternalism; we’re simply offering an eternalism-based undercutting defeater of an analysis of change as the actualization of potential.)

Koons (2020) challenges the above line of reasoning on the basis of the distinction between absolute and relative act/potency. For the eternalist, all times are equally actual in an absolute sense, however there are nevertheless various potentialities (and actualities) relative to times. So, a baby’s having grandchildren (say) would be potential relative to the present but actual relative to some future time.

There are two distinct worries for this response, one of which is provided by Feser:

[N]one of this talk about relative actuality captures any real change or real causation, any more than if I were to describe the objects and events of a fictional story as relatively actual (that is, relative to the story) even if they are from an absolute point of view merely potential (since the story is fictional). We need to know what it is, specifically, about the B-theorist’s conception of the relation between the banana’s being green at one time and yellow at another that makes the transition from the one to the other a real change involving real causation. (2020, pp. 487-488)

To be sure, Koons suggests two ways that an eternalist could understand change: (i) to relativize the inherence of accidents to particular times, or (ii) to adopt an ontology of temporal parts.

But it’s unclear what distinguishes such understandings of change from something like an at-at theory of change. As Feser (in our view rightly) notes, the problem with these two suggestions is that “nothing in either of the approaches proposed by Koons suffices to capture real change as opposed to a completely spatialized and thus change-free conception of time” (2020, p. 488). If S is F relative to t1 and ~F relative to t2, or has a temporal part that is F at t1 and another temporal part that is ~F at t2, it’s far from clear that this constitutes the sort of real change or dynamism that Feser’s Aristotelian proof requires (as opposed to a mere (change-unrelated) difference like that between the hot and cold ends of McTaggart’s famous poker).

The second worry for Koons’ response is that—even if successful—it seems to undercut the Aristotelian proof on a different front.[1] For then our grounds for concluding to a purely actual being (full stop, simpliciter) are thereby undercut: we would only be able to conclude to a relatively purely actual being that causes changeable substances to exist at a given moment, not an absolutely purely actual being. For Feser’s argument focuses only on chains of actualizations of potentials at a given moment in time. Because of this, the potentials (and, consequently, the actual things that concurrently actualize those potentials) in question are relative to one point in time. We would thereby only be warranted in inferring the existence of a relatively purely actual actualizer. And there seems to be no straightforward path from this to an absolutely purely actual being.


[1] Bear in mind that the following criticism only targets any appeal to Koons’ response as a way of defending the Aristotelian proof against my proposed undercutting defeater.

4.3.10 Summary

As I hope to have shown above, almost none of Feser’s stage two inferences succeed.

5 Summing it all up

I have now publicized and defended thirteen problems for the Aristotelian proof. And the ones Feser targeted stand despite Feser’s attempts at response. Indeed, the case against the Aristotelian proof has been significantly strengthened. For not only do the criticisms withstand Feser’s recent scrutiny, but the criticisms also contain new, thus-far-unpublicized problems deriving from (i) entailing EIT, (ii) mistakenly assuming pluralism about being, and (iii) containing a plethora of failed stage two inferences.

I appreciate Feser’s interest in my paper and his attempt to engage with it seriously. However, on close inspection the attempt seems to me to be riddled with misrepresentations, falsehoods, clear misunderstandings of the dialectical context, and missed points.

Author: Joe Mama

Email: PleaseDon’tEmailMeI’mReallyExhaustedAfterWritingThisPost@gmail.com

42 thoughts on “Feser on Schmid on the Aristotelian proof

  1. Certainly a thorough reply, and I applaud you for spending so much time engaging with Feser. That said, the reaction of his fans can probably tell you why your kindness towards them is–bluntly stated–wasted. On his blog, they’re responding to you with quips like “A lot of nonsense can be hidden by expressing it in lengthy reams of self promoting hoopla” and “If you did make a good argument somewhere after the first 7 billion words, surely there’s a way to get to it faster.”

    You’d think these guys would be flattered that someone was spending “7 billion words” on arguments they insist ought to be taken really really seriously by the Godless atheistic philosophical establishment, but for some strange reason they’re just dismissing you off-hand. It’s almost like they were never interested in real debate of any sort, and much more interested in simply browbeating (at least) their opponents. What a surprise, I never would have suspected that.

    In any case, when you say, “For suppose that the unactualized actualizer is simply a necessary but non-purely-actual being, A” I think Feser (or his fanboys) would most likely say that any necessary being would also have to be Purely Actual (tm, (c), all rights reserved). In Feser’s comments, Vincent Torley raises some good points that something “purely actual” in one respect doesn’t have to be “purely actual” in *all* respects, which might be productive to look at.

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    • Thanks for this! I think you’re right. If your response is on the short end, you get criticized for now giving it sufficient attention. But when you do give it sufficient attention and painstaking detail, you’re criticized for it being too long. In any case, I don’t quite care about the criticisms concerning the length. It’s as long as I needed it to be to adequately explain all of Feser’s misrepresentations, misunderstandings of the dialectical context, missed points, and so on.

      Here’s something people who complain about length should think about.

      Part of the problem is that evidently the brevity in my paper itself [which some have said felt a tad crammed — which is true, since Sophia made me cut from 11k to 8k] failed to prevent Feser’s misunderstandings. I had already clarified all the confusions about the dialectical context in the paper, but that didn’t stop Feser from misunderstanding it. So I had to take things back to square one and explain it in greater detail, because evidently my section on “Dialectical Context” in the paper didn’t have its intended effect. And there is no filibustering in my post — each of my points in the post was a substantive, information-packed point, without fluff. And again, it takes just one sentence to allege that someone begs the question, or to misrepresent someone’s view(s). It takes paragraphs to correct the misrepresentation, since you have to explain how it’s a misrepresentation, what you actually said, etc.

      Plus, Feser can say, in his blog post, things like ‘well, I object to this from agere sequitur esse on pp. such-and-such’. Again, this is one sentence, but Feser is saying that I need to address the argument. But addressing the argument requires me to go to pp. such-and-such, explain his argument, and then develop lines of response. Again, this is a case where Feser can say in one sentence something that requires multiple paragraphs to adequately respond to. [What am I supposed to do, *ignore* the argument from agere sequitur esse, despite Feser’s insisting that I can’t ignore it? Clearly not. So, I have to spell out the argument Feser gives on those pages that he cites, and then provide my response.] It is thus perfectly expected that my reply would be much longer than his post, for the same reason I’ve been pointing out: it takes one sentence on Feser’s end to gesture towards something he writes elsewhere, or to allege that I beg the question, or to misrepresent my actual positions — but it takes multiple paragraphs, on each occasion, to correct these.

      Also, a rejoinder to some of those cringe commenters:

      Apparently when I reference other work I’ve done on these topics, it’s self-promotion, but when Feser does it, it isn’t. Interesting. [NB: I’m not saying *Feser* says its self-promotion. It’s just some cringe commenters that say it lol.

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      • Out of curiosity, are you yourself planning on writing (or have written) a longer monograph refuting Feser? It’d be harder to accuse a book-length project of being “too long” for a book, and it might be easier to make all of these concepts understandable to readers (both lay and professional) if you could bring them together in one work rather than constantly worrying about the size of individual papers and book chapters like editors require you to. I know you’ve published one book (“The Majesty of Reason,” which I’ve already bought 🙂 ) but such a project seems like it might be a good second one.

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      • “it takes one sentence on Feser’s end to gesture towards something he writes elsewhere, or to allege that I beg the question, or to misrepresent my actual positions — but it takes multiple paragraphs, on each occasion, to correct these.”

        Well, maybe not correct them; but to respond to them, anyway. And that’s a fine observation. So what to do? How about you don’t try to address everything all at once. You’re implicitly accusing of Feser of doing that, but the result is that he covers it all too thinly, in your humble opinion. You try to cover it too exhaustively and end up with an unwieldy monologue that is fine academically, perhaps (that’s not necessarily a compliment), but maybe just inappropriate for a blog, which should (aim to) present arguments in a more dialogue-friendly way. Try to be more Socratic. Fisking is fine, but you need to do it piecemeal and find the right size chunks to tackle.

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      • I do think your comment is valuable here. And I do take the points about length seriously. Part of the problem is my anxiety. It really eats away at my mind if I don’t respond to everything. I didn’t sleep well or eat well these past few days, in addition to having some headaches. I also worried that if I broke it up into different parts, either people would skip parts, or would allege that I didn’t address every criticism, or things along those lines. I also wanted to be able to have one central hub that contains a summation of all my work on the Aristotelian proof. Lots of these factors explain the length. It’s a combination of my mind eating away at me if I don’t systematically tackle everything plus the desire to have a central hub for my stuff on the proof.

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    • I’ve been directed to your post thanks to Feser’s blog, and may I reiterate that the polite exchange of ideas is certainly laudable. Though I’d like to qualify what Gunther Laird says above, because I’ve read several good comments about you on Feser’s blog. (Of course there are a few who like to poke fun at just about anyone. Please excuse them.) But to say that you’re being dismissed off-hand? And that you’re just being browbeated? That’s just a gross misinterpretation on Gunther’s part, I have to say. You’re a serious thinker, and you’re being taken seriously, which is how things ought to be, and my eager-for-polite-exchange-of-ideas mind is satisfied 🙂

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  2. Hi mate,

    First time reader and commenter.

    The only point I’d like to express is that the alleged appeal of your argument(s) is diminished by the sheer length and breadth of your response. Understandably you’re tackling a metaphysically challenging topic and a highly intelligent philosopher as well. Attention to detail ought to be paid to what’s being said. Still, as a reader, I believe it would be more strategically convincing for you if you were to make your objections more succinct.

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    • I did claim that he has suggested/intimated/raised suspicions about me either making many of these anonymous comments or convincing others to do so. He suggests/intimates/raises suspicions this in his email to Cameron, firstly, [“I’ve wondered whether he’s trying to get my attention (or asking other people to do so!)”], but also, it’s pretty obvious elsewhere that he seems to be implying some suggestion/suspicion/intimation that I am behind some of the anonymous requests [whether doing them directly or persuading others to do them]. In his comments, for instance, he basically said/hinted ‘or maybe it’s just one person, hmmm….., and this person seems to have a Joe Schmid obsession, hmmmmm….’. [Pretty much everyone in the Facebook post in the CC Discussion Group recognized that this was being subtly intimated.]

      Finally, we should remember that I never said Feser actually believes this or actually says I am behind it. He just gives suggestions/intimations/suspicions. But that alone warrants my section ‘putting something to bed’, since no one likes receiving suggestions/intimations/suspicions that they have a bad character.

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      • Another thing to consider, the principle “methinks the lady doth protest too much…”
        I’m not in the least calling you a liar, just pointing out that an entirely sufficient reply, especially given your avowals of what a busy guy you are, would have been: “First, regarding sock puppetry, if there was any, I assure Feser that I was not behind it and have no knowledge of it.” Done. If instead you protest too much, it makes your claim that you are a busy guy who wouldn’t waste his time pestering Feser look a bit dubious. It obviously invites the question, if you were too busy for the one, wouldn’t you be too busy for the other?

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      • Yes, that’s one potential explanation — that I am not in fact busy but am not truthfully saying so. Another explanation is that I have pretty bad anxiety, and that my psyche drives me insane with incessant and nagging thoughts and worries if I don’t address things in as systematic a manner as possible, regardless of whether I have the time to do it. My anxiety will well-nigh force me to do it, even if it means poor sleep, poor eating, and so on, and even if it means setting aside all the other projects and deadlines I have due. And, indeed, this is the true explanation. There is a sense in which I didn’t have time for this post. I have 3 R&R’s due this July plus a ref report due this July, and my intention was to knock those out. [And I didn’t, in fact, sleep or eat well these past few days.] I had to put all those aside — or, rather, I would describe it as my anxiety forcing me to put those aside — in order to make this post. And now I am *substantially* behind on this work.

        Anyway, I have medicine for the anxiety. It helps, but it’s no magic bullet

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      • “Yes, that’s one potential explanation — that I am not in fact busy but am not truthfully saying so.” I never said that, I just pointed out that the facts in evidence logically invite the question. Of course the explanation you give is a perfectly good one, psychologically, but the fact remains that it is not a good explanation logically, and that logic not neurosis should drive what you write — as is the case when you frankly acknowledge your neurotic tendencies, but not when your writing merely manifests those tendencies. So again, I was *not* calling you a liar, personality-wise I’m high in trait neuroticism too, it’s not a bad thing, I was just pointing out what appears to be the logic of the thing, which hopefully can help you to master the psychology of the thing. Peace.

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      • In saying that ‘yes, that’s one potential explanation’, I did not claim that you said it’s an explanation, or that’s true, or what have you. And nor did I claim that you claimed I’m a liar 🙂

        Your comments do help broaden my perspective, and for that I am appreciative!

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    • It’s not really philosophical issue, but for anxiety, try kava, especially the root powder. It can be excellent for anxiety, and it doesn’t have the downsides of most medication for anxiety (SSRIs and Benzos).* Kratom can be quite good too, but it can create a moderate physical dependence.

      *The liver damage claims are a largely a myth.

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  3. Ooooh, you mean ” Existential Inertia and Classical Theistic Proofs?” It’s under review, that’s why I didn’t see it on your Amazon.com page. Well when it comes out I’ll definitely buy it, best of luck with it! It does seem like anti-Thomists are enjoying a bit of a renaissance between you and Oppy, I hope my own book can piggyback off of that, haha.

    Aside from that, a suggestion–from the looks of it a lot of this post’s length was due to you having to repost your previous work, particularly stuff your editors cut out. In the future, it might be good to separate them–make a separate post of the background information you’d like your readers to have, with the main post very concisely addressing Feser’s smaller one.

    In any case, I particularly like this passage:

    Feser writes: “A second problem is that Schmid’s proposed alternative way of characterizing the situation is incoherent. For the claim that “the matter’s potential to exist as water is presently actual right now” (emphasis added) suggests that the collection of particles of type P is both potentially water and actually water in the same respect and at the same time. But it is a well-known Aristotelian-Thomistic thesis – one which is famously given expression in Aquinas’s First Way, and which Schmid does not challenge – that nothing can be both potential and actual in the same respect and at the same time.”

    This is wrong. For one thing, I’m simply following Feser’s own articulation but removing the ambiguity in ‘actualized’. Consider what Feser writes on p. 26: “After all, given the chemistry of the water, the matter that makes it up also has the potential to exist instead as distinct quantities of oxygen and hydrogen. But that is not the potential that is being actualized right now; instead, it is that matter’s potential to exist as water that is being actualized right now.”

    I have Five Proofs on hand and looked up the quotation myself, it’s just as you say it is. I don’t see where Feser can criticize you. You say “the matter’s potential to exist as water is presently actual right now,” Feser said “the matter’s potential to exist as water [is] being actualized right now.” What the hell’s the difference between the phrase “presently actual right now” and “being actualized right now?” “Presently actual” and “being actualized” seem like the same thing, so why does Feser accuse your formulation of incoherency? Maybe there’s some ‘more charitable’ way we’re supposed to be reading Feser, but I’m honestly and genuinely baffled by what it could be. The verb ‘to actualize’ in this context means “to make actual,” right? So if Feser is saying a “potential” is “being actualized right now,” he means that potential is being made actual right now, which means it’s actual in the present, or presently actual.

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    • Gunther, a potentiality being presently actualised doesn’t mean that the *potential* is presently actual; it means that what *results* from the actualisation of the potential (namely, the water) is actual. It’s coherent to talk of an actualised potential; it’s not coherent to speak of an actual potential (any more than a square circle). The latter is simply a contradiction (unless we take “potential” to mean “possible”; but that isn’t the way the terms are being used here).

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      • Hi Grenjib,

        Thanks for your response. You say,

        Gunther, a potentiality being presently actualised doesn’t mean that the *potential* is presently actual; it means that what *results* from the actualisation of the potential (namely, the water) is actual.

        The problem is, I don’t see a difference between a result and a potential. To continue with the water example, let’s say we have a sample of hydrogen and oxygen. If I understand correctly, you’d say the hydrogen and oxygen is potentially water, we need a spark of heat and energy to actualize that potential. But that just seems to me another way of saying “the result of adding hydrogen and oxygen together, along with heat/energy, is water.” Another way to put it: If, at 5 PM we just have a bit of hydrogen and oxygen, that hydrogen and oxygen is potentially water. We zap the H and O with a bit of energy, and at 5:01 PM, we have an actual bit of water. In other words, the potential water at 5 PM is now actual water at 5:01 PM, which is to say, the potential is presently actual at 5:01 PM.

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  4. I read Feser’s post and the tone is so high brow and condescending, like you’re some silly little boy who got confused and he would deign to correct you. Meanwhile, your post here utterly demolishes his post — a post full of misrepresentation, arrogance, blatant and obvious confusions about the dialectical context and question-begging, and more.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your blog post. Excellent work.

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  5. Joe,

    As a fan of your work, I was disappointed by Feser’s reply. His post was rife with well-poisoning, condescension, and uncharitability. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten the impression that this level of vitriol is typical of a lot of Feser’s online discourse (see DBH debacle).

    I do not think you should worry about the complaints about length. The crux of many of the objections raised by Feser is misinterpretation of your work. Responding to that requires that you be thorough so as to avoid further misinterpretation. I feel as though your audience appreciates your peculiar style.

    If I had to offer a criticism, it would be that your over-the-top expressions of love at the beginning/end of responses where you deal with biting criticism can come off as a bit disingenuous. You’re obviously under no obligation to listen to me, but I think a more subdued way of communicating respect for hostile interlocutors would be more effective.

    Finally, if you’d ever be interested in a 30-60 min conversation on a small platform (~200 subs), I’d love to have a conversation with you.

    I’m sorry to hear that this whole ordeal has exacted a psychological toll. I would be similarly affected if I were in your shoes.

    Best, Ethan.

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    • Your message means so much. I truly appreciate it, including your helpful criticism. ❤

      As for a 30 min convo, I think that would be fun. You can email me if you'd like to follow up on that 🙂

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    • That’s a bizarre claim about Feser’s debate with DBH. I agree with the latter on infernalism, and am closer to him on many issues than I am to Feser, but the vitriol largely is due to DBH. We all know how irascible DBH can be! I am no Thomist , but Feser has always struck me as a pretty chilled guy and a serious philosopher. I wouldn’t read too much into the tit-for-tat of blog commentators, on his blog or here, except when they actually make solid arguments. However, now there are probably more commentators at Feser’s blog praising Schmid, rather than attacking him. That is not true here of Feser.

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      • I agree with Plotinus. Ethan’s claim about Feser is false, silly, and hypocritical, as is the advice to not worry about the length. You can be thorough without being thorough all at once. Just take one or two or three things at a time and be thorough with those. One good argument is better than a string of 37 weak arguments, both in itself and as being conducive to constructive back-and-forth critical examination. Ethan’s advice is likely to just exacerbate the scrupulous tendencies in Schmid’s work that tend to undermine its effectiveness, both rational and rhetorical.

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  6. Joe, I LOVE that you take theistic arguments seriously. But please, please, please take care of your health first. Philosophical problems will be here tomorrow. Take care that you are.

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  7. Joe, I am a young Catholic, a young philosopher, and a fan of the work of Feser and Classical Theists like him. I just wanted to say thank you for raising your criticisms. As I have always found to be the case, criticisms raised in good faith are an act of charity, sharpening the minds of all involved. I always understand an idea more deeply after facing a good criticism. In particular, I really appreciated your objection to divine simplicity/immutability regarding knowledge of contingents which you raised in your debate with Fr. Pine. As I think through it, it is forcing me to understand more fully what is meant by the word God. That is a great service and I thank you for it.

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  8. Pingback: Edward Feser: Schmid on existential inertia

  9. Pingback: Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia | Part 1 | Majesty of Reason

  10. Pingback: Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia | Part 2 | Majesty of Reason

  11. Pingback: Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia | Part 3 | Majesty of Reason

  12. Pingback: Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia | Part 4 | Majesty of Reason

  13. Pingback: Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia: Vicious Circularity and the Metaphysics of EIT | Part 5 | Majesty of Reason

  14. Pingback: Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia: Theoretical Virtues and Vices | Part 6 | Majesty of Reason

  15. Pingback: Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia: An Argument Against EIT | Part 7 | Majesty of Reason

  16. Pingback: Feser on Schmid on Existential Inertia | A Comprehensive Response | Majesty of Reason

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