Quick Thoughts on Graham Oppy’s Response to Edward Feser

Graham Oppy recently published a paper in Religious Studies entitled, “On stage one of Feser’s ‘Aristotelian proof” (see here) which seeks to refute Feser’s defense of the First Way. Now I do not presume to have the intellectual expertise of either of them, but I would nevertheless like to write my initial thoughts and compare notes with Feser’s future response. What follows is my brief defense of the First Way.

Existential Inertia

Oppy’s central claim is this:

Potentials to remain unchanged do not require distinct actualizers; all they require is the absence of any preventers of the actualization of those potentials. In particular, things that have the potential to go on existing go on existing unless there are preventers – internal or external – that cause those things to cease to exist.

He uses the analogy that a chair that is red at t1 has the potential to continue to exist and be red at t2. This potential does not need to be actualized by something else; it just continues being actual as it was before. This idea is not new. It’s called existential inertia, which holds that once something is in existence, it naturally continues to exist without any cause. Let’s suppose that Oppy is right here. This is not change in the strict sense that Feser is talking about. The common person would never claim something that stays the same has changed. Change is when a red chair becomes a green chair. Or in more Aristotelian language, it’s when the red chair’s potential to be green is actualized. The First Way never says unchanged things need distinct actualizers, only that changed things need distinct actualizers. So it seems to me that Oppy’s objection is irrelevant.

But this may be too quick. He presents a further challenge to us:

Because potentials to remain unchanged need not require distinct actualizers, there are even cases where potentials to change need not require distinct actualizers. Suppose, for example, that the rate of expansion of the universe is some constant value, R. Suppose that, at t, the universe has the potential to be expanding at rate R at t + ε. All that is required for the realization of this potential is that nothing intervenes to bring it about that the rate of expansion of the universe changes.

Here Oppy broadens the application of existential inertia (actualities can remain actual without a distinct actualizer) to apply to not just unchanged things, but to changing things. The problem lies with his original assumption: that an unchanged object actualizes its potential to remain unchanged at t2. For Aristotelians, time just is the measurement of change. If there was a possible world in which change did not exist, then time would likewise not exist. Time is not some dimension that exists above and beyond the objects themselves but is a product of change in objects. Suppose that God actualized a possible world in which only an unchanging red chair exists. If nothing changes in this world, then t2 never arises. For t2 to arise, something in the red chair needs to change. But there is only one moment and its t1, which exists timelessly (aka changelessly). God actualized the red chair at t1 but since it never changes, He never needs to actualize it at t2. Therefore no potential to remain unchanged at t2 is ever actualized in the first place.

This is a fatal flaw in Oppy’s objection. Remember, change just is the actualization of some potential. If this is true, then Oppy’s claim is equivalent to saying, “No potential is actualized (an unchanged thing), but the potential to not be actualized is actualized.” This is completely incoherent because if the potential to not be actualized is actualized, then change has occurred because some potential is actualized. In other words, he is saying that some object has changed but it hasn’t changed. That’s a contradiction. Time just is the measurement of change in substances, and change just is the actualization of a potential in a substance. Time and change are inextricably connected. This means that the second part of Oppy’s argument cannot get off the ground because it depends on the original assumption being true.

Brute Actualizer

Let’s suppose however that we can treat the first and second parts as distinct arguments. For all I know, Oppy could grant my objection to his original assumption but insist that it is still conceivable that the actuality of R (loosely speaking) could actualize the expansion of the universe without itself requiring a distinct actualizer. We shall call R the brute actualizer. To make this a little more down to earth, Oppy’s claim is similar to saying that a car going at 50 MPH (its velocity) continues at this speed indefinitely unless impeded. Why? Because if it’s already at that speed, then it will continue at that speed. Why will it continue at that speed? Well, at this point the answer breaks down to a brute fact or a brute actualizer. It continues at that speed because it just does.

Metaphysically, how is this supposed to work? As far as I can tell, Oppy only has two options: (a) the brute actualizer remains actual without any potentials being actualized, or (b) the brute actualizer continues to actualize its potential to be actual. Now (a) is problematic because if no potentials are actualized, then at no point can R go from t1 to t2. It is like saying that a car is moving at 50MPH without moving. All you have is a single moment of actuality, and thus no change could occur. But (b) seems more promising, and is in fact what Oppy wants to claim. However, the problem with (b) is very similar to (a): the actuality of R only actualizes R as it is, not as it potentially is. This is because if the actuality of R could actualize its own potentials, every potential would be actualized at t1. For example, the actuality of the red chair only actualizes a red chair. It does not simultaneously actualize the potential to be a green chair.

Similarly, the actuality of R only actualizes R as it is at t1, it does not actualize its potential to exist at t2 at t1. If it did, why couldn’t the actuality of R actualize all times at once? But if you limit its potential to just one moment at a time, then you likewise limit actuality to actualizing one moment at a time. Actuality gets limited to only actualizing the present. This is because again, if it was not limited to actualizing just the present, then it would actualize all times, which is absurd. B-theorists may beg to differ, but their view entails that nothing ever changes in the strict Aristotelian sense because every time is already actual, they’re just actual at different points in a “temporal” dimension. I will not address the problems with this idea here. Suffice to say, if we accept that real change exists, then a brute actualizer seems to be an incoherent notion.

Final Remarks

Frankly, I am still not sure what it even means for R to actualize its potential to exist at every moment in which it exists. It’s equivalent to supposing that a thing brings itself into existence. Not only that, but a potential is always a potential towards some difference. But what difference is Oppy proposing occurs when R actualizes its potential to exist at t2? The constant remains constant. It doesn’t change. So why is there a potential being actualized in the first place? You may as well just say that R is Pure Actuality if you want it to actualize other things without itself being actualized. Otherwise, if R causes the universe to expand, then it changes insofar as it actualized expansion X at t2 when it did not at t1. Why did it actualize expansion X at t2 rather than t1? Well because something in R must have been actualized, but it couldn’t have been actualized by itself otherwise it would have already been actualized. Therefore there must be some distinct actualizer that actualized R so that it could bring about expansion X at t2.

1 thought on “Quick Thoughts on Graham Oppy’s Response to Edward Feser”

  1. Um. Ok. I’m only halfway through this and it immediately looks to me like he’s doing a equivocal bait-and-switch. He starts talking about potentials in a manner that is consistent with the Thomist understanding, but then immediately creates an equivocation on the definition of existence.

    From what I understand, existence of a potential and existence per se are separate things. You don’t actualize the existence of a potential, the potential is either there or it isn’t. Furthermore, it would seem to me that speaking of something having a potential to have a potential would lead to an infinite regress and thus affirm the First Way. I am but an amateur disciple of Feser, however.

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