Sunday, January 29, 2012

Does God Have Any Potential?

(Disclaimer: These are the ramblings of an amateur philosopher and thus these thoughts -- while new and exciting to me -- have probably been answered thousands of times already by real philosophers throughout the ages.  That said, I’m just going to say them anyway!  So here goes…)

Question:  Would something that is pure actuality necessarily have all active potentiality?

Aristotle defined two types of potencies: active and passive.  Active potency is that which is intrinsic to the thing because of its nature – it requires no external source of activation (an acorn has the active potential to be a full grown tree.)  Passive potency requires an external source of activation in that it is not in the nature of the thing to actualize (a tree has the passive potential to be a chair.)

My thoughts on that are these:  When an acorn becomes a tree -- although it exhibits many physical changes -- its nature does not change.  Thus active potency entails no change of nature.  In fact active potency is derived entirely from the nature.  The two are inseparable.  A thing’s nature entails all that it is and all that is in its nature to do or be.  In fact, it can be argued that the nature is the 'being' and the changes are not 'new beings' or 'changes of being' but rather actions stemming from the 'actual being'.  Thus, when an acorn ‘changes’ into a tree, it is not a change of being at all but rather the acorn acting according to the active potency of its nature.  The development into a tree is the nature of the acorn in action.

Now God is shown, through the five ways, to be a necessary, purely actual being whose essence just is to exist.  God is said to have no potential – active or passive.  This doesn’t make sense to me.  While it is certainly true that God can have no passive potential, I think the case can be made that -- because of his purely actual nature -- God necessarily has all active potential.  If active potency encompasses all that a being can do, then God -- who can do anything that is possible -- has the active potency to do all things.  In other words God has pure active potency.  The acorn can only do the things necessary to grow into a tree, it cannot do things to cause itself to play golf, nor can it read a book.  God, on the other hand could conceivably do all these things.  What’s more, if God has no active potency, then his ability to do anything is incoherent unless he is actually doing all possible things at all possible times – which is itself incoherent.  If God is not actually doing all possible things, all the time, his ability to do so when he chooses must be described as “pure unlimited active potential”. 

Thus, I’d argue, the nature of God -- which is purely actual -- necessarily possesses all active potential. 

[Postscript:  I brought this up in a post over at Edward Feser's blog and he confirmed that, not only has this issue been hashed out a long time ago, but none other than Thomas Aquinas himself said the same thing I'm saying!!!  (See Summa Theologiae I.25.1:)  Thank you Dr. Feser!]

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